Nixon's Nixon, Comedy Theatre, London

Tricky Dicky's last-night nerves
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Nixon's Nixon is ambitiously titled – how to pluck the real one from the number of faces this brilliant but bizarre man showed the world? Forgoing most of the obvious temptations – Nixon is treated with respect but not reverence – Russell Lees' absorbing dark comedy succeeds rather well.

In the first week of August 1974, Richard Nixon could hear the knives being sharpened and see the vapour from the "smoking gun" tape writing his doom. He faced impeachment on, among other charges, obstruction of justice, and a transcript had been made public in which he had done just that. On 7 August, the evening before he resigned, Nixon summoned his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to the White House for a three-hour talk. In half that time, Lees' play shows us what they might have said.

Charles Towers' production is set in the Lincoln Sitting Room (not, as the programme says, "the smallest room in the White House" – holding meetings there was LBJ's style). Amid the glum Victorian furniture, Nixon squirms on his Barcalounger beneath a bust of Honest Abe, who, he says was another "regular guy caught in a very difficult time". But the great irony of Nixon is that being an ordinary bloke was, for him, even more remote a dream than the Presidency.

Keith Jochim doesn't look much like Nixon, but those familiar, gorilla-like mannerisms – the raised arm slicing backward, the hunched shoulders and lowered head – make for a plausible impersonation. This was a man who lost the highest office by acting like the cornered rat he felt himself to be.

Tim Donoghue reproduces Kissinger's Dr Strangelove voice all too accurately (those not familiar with the original may find it caricatured). But it emphasises the joke of these two defective self-made men ruling the US. Nixon says that he and Brezhnev, reared in poverty, "have succeeded in being..." Kissinger interrupts: "Middle class." Unoffended, Nixon continues: "...the most powerful men in the world." Nixon sinks into self-pity, then hauls himself out by comparing himself with Napoleon. He broods about his place in history, and seethes with hatred over rich, smug Jack Kennedy who stole from him an election he regrets not having contested. Desperate to save himself, he concocts a wild scheme to foment, on the Russo-Chinese border, a war that only he can end. This is more believable than his and Kissinger's rushing about excitedly waving their arms; the tricky lighting also disrupts the otherwise realistic atmosphere.

But Lees also undermines himself by altering what we know of this meeting – Kissinger has revealed that, at Nixon's request, he knelt with him in prayer – to comply with one of his excellent but over-extended jokes. This strikes a false note of contrivance in an otherwise sympathetic portrait of a monster trying, with touching bewilderment, to be human.

To 15 September, 020-7369 1731

Comments