With his male-model good looks and sparkly smile, Max Irons (the womanising King Edward in the TV adaptation of The White Lady) is natural casting as a golden boy. In this UK premiere of Beau Willimon's 2008 play about dirty tricks on the campaign trail, he portrays Stephen Bellamy, the fast-rising charmer who, at 25, is already the press secretary to one of the candidates for the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination.
This meteoric spinmeister has everyone eating out of his hand, or so he imagines – from Rachel Tucker's ballsy, sceptical Ida, the New York Times reporter on whom he slyly plants a positive story in return for a flattering profile of his campaign manager, to Aysha Kala's deftly enigmatic Molly, the 19 year old intern whom he has no difficulty in bedding. But, out of ego and curiosity, Stephen makes an ultimately fatal error when he agrees to a secret meeting with the rival candidate's campaign maestro (Andrew Whipp) who unsuccessfully tempts him to switch sides. From that moment on, the prince of spin's world starts to spin badly out of control.
If this scenario sounds oddly familiar, it's because it was adapted into George Clooney's 2011 movie The Ides of March. The play has less sensational twists, but is tightly plotted, and the fact that, in the stage version, we're never granted a glimpse of the Presidential wannabe and his professed ideals emphasises how the focus of the drama is not on a clash of political principles but on the sheer machiavellian gamesmanship of the campaign and its moral toll. Despite press-night nerves, Irons compellingly charted Stephen's disintegration from a hubristic whizz kid to a frantic husk devoid of any purpose but vengeful destructiveness once he has been out-smarted by keener tactical brains.
Guy Unsworth's production is well-paced and pulls you in, though it's a pity that the budget seems to have precluded any electronic or digital imagery. The drably low-tech set leaves the characters looking like sharks out of water and perhaps serves to expose the deficiencies of the script. The purportedly hard-bitten dialogue (“I've got to file by 4. You've got until then to make up your mind” rasps the blackmailing Ida) often sounds like a limp, pointless pastiche of snappiness.
As Stephen's boss, who turns out to value trust over talent, Shaun Williamson makes a quietly disturbing transition from roly-poly avuncularity to rebuking chill, while Josh O'Connor delivers a comic gem of a performance as new boy Ben – a sweet-natured, almost annoyingly diligent geek, who may not be quite the hero-worshipping innocent he seems. Watch your back.
To October 5; 020 7407 0234