Play of the Year

“Witness who we really are.. “

James Baldwin

David Harewood as William F Buckley and Zachary Quinto as Gore Vidal. (Photo: Johan Persson)

I was fortunate enough to see James Graham’s Best of Enemies in preview last year at the Young Vic.  It blew me away as it analysed how political debate has changed since 1968.  The other factor which I found to be a masterstroke was the casting of David Harewood, a black actor as the right wing Republican, William F Buckley.  Being played by a popular black actor, completely changed the dynamic around the debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto) allowing us to look beyond the politics and concentrate on the arguments.  

It opens with a heated remark by Buckley which he wished hadn’t been broadcast, personally offensive to Vidal and assuredly abusive.  We have to wait until the end of the play to discover what he said.  Instead we flash back to look at the three main news networks in the US, CBC, NBC and the poor third placed ABC.  Concerned at their ratings, Elmer Lower (Kevin McMonagle) President of News at ABC invites William F Buckley and Gore Vidal to discuss the political issues of the day alongside coverage of the 1968 primaries in Florida and Chicago. 

Cast in Best of Enemies. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The result is incendiary but first James Graham’s play takes us back on video to the assassination of JF Kennedy in 1963 with input from Aretha Franklin (Deborah Alli) and James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe).  Paris in 1968 is the student demonstrations. In the UK we see the Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War and meet Tariq Ali (Sam Otto).  Even Enoch Powell (Tom Goodwin) makes an appearance, played by a white actor in case you ask. 1968 is a momentous year with the assassination of both Martin Luther King (Syrus Lowe) and Bobby Kennedy (Tom Goodwin). 

Bunny Christie’s design has the studio action on stage with three square television screens filling the width of the stage, showing live footage as well as archive film. It draws you in and is smooth flowing. This is a play with great visuals making the time speed by and increasing excitement for the wedges of debate between the two protagonists where we see close ups of them. There is classical music giving it a stately feel. 

David Harewood as William F Buckley (Photo: Johan Persson)

I saw Charles Edwards in the Gore Vidal part and always wondered if he had been intended to play Buckley because of his physical resemblance.  Edwards was very good but Zachary Quinto is so much better as Vidal, bitchy and catty, his words sting and the resulting play seems to me to be better balanced.  We see Vidal in his social milieu; the Democrat set are filmed by Andy Warhol (Tom Goodwin) and they mention the absence of supporters Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. 

Zachary Quinto as Gore Vidal and Deborah Alli as Brooke Gladstone. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The debates between the two men see their fortunes rise and fall.  Vidal is supported by his manfriends and Buckley by his wife Patricia (Clare Foster).

They discuss the usual issues, Vietnam and taxes. In a few months they switch from Florida to Chicago where the colorful Mayor Daley (John Hodgkinson) is in charge.  “You say protestors, I say rioters!”  he says.  

It is interesting to reflect how successful this was in terms of ABC winning the channel ratings and to see how it led to the actual candidates debating on television and today the election of people who are telegenic. You can almost touch the tension. between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley as their debating skill zings across the stage.  

(Photo: Johan Persson)

This is the best play on in London with its state of the art production values and terrific performances.  It is based on a documentary of 2015 by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. I was surprised how much slicker it had become since the important outing at the Young Vic which made it winner of the Critics Circle Best New Play 2021.  James Graham is skilled at writing plays that document the history of our times.  

Best of Enemies is only booking to 18th February 2023 so plan to see it now or you may miss this five star experience from the theatre site that doesn’t do stars.

Dav]id Harewood as William F Buckley (Photo: Johan Persson)

Production Notes

Best of Enemies

Written  by James Graham

Directed by James Herrin

Inspired by the 2015 documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon



David Harewood

Zachary Quinton

John Hodgkinson

Clare Foster

David Boyle

Emilio Doorgasingh

Jamie Hogarth

Kevin McMonagle

Sam Otto

Tom Godwin

Syrus Lowe

Lincoln Conway

Deborah Alli

Vivienne Ekwulugo

Saaj Raja


Director: James Herrin

Designer: Bunny Christie

Lighting Designer: Jack Knowles

Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons

Video Designer: Max Spiuelbichler

Composer: Benjamin Kwasi Burrell

Movement: Shelley Maxwell


Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval

Booking to 18th February 2023


The Noel Coward Theatre

85-88 St Martin’s Lane 

London WC2N 4AP

Telephone: 0844 482 5151


Tube: Leicester Square

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the

Noël Coward Theatre  on 2nd December  2022