Now Or Later @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Eddie Redmayne
Domhnall Gleeson
Adam James
Nancy Crane
Pamela Nomvete
Matthew Marsh

directed by
Dominic Cooke
It is the night of the US Presidential elections and it looks like the Democrats will swing it. The commander-in-chief-to-bes son, John Jr., sits in a hotel room watching the television coverage as state after state falls to his father. But he has something more immediately pressing on his mind. A photo of him wearing an ill-advised costume to a student party has surfaced on the internet and he is being pressurised by his fathers advisors to put out a statement apologising for his actions.

Christopher Shinns new play feels particularly timely thanks to recent events. As rumours about John McCains running mate, Sarah Palin, filter through from the internet to the mainstream media, the line between the personal and political has never been more porous. The internet has opened doors for amorphous, gossipy personal stuff, as John terms it, to become public property; his act turning up at a party dressed as Mohammed in order to make a point about freedom of expression has become a bat with which to bash his father on this most pivotal of nights, a cloud that threatens to rain on the first days of his dads presidency.

Of course the media management machine goes into full swing and a succession of visitors come banging on his hotel room door, trying to coax him into making an official statement to counter any attacks. But though John is emotionally fragile following a recent break up with his boyfriend and once attempted suicide in his teens, flipping over his jeep while wasted, his subsequent time in therapy has made him steadfast about certain things, his own privacy and autonomy chief among them.

First at the door is Marc (Adam James), an advisor to his father; he has the sheen of friendliness about him but the campaign and the damage this might do to it is obviously the only thing he cares about. Next up is his mother, Jessica, played by Nancy Crane dressed in formidable First Lady purple, who, though she cares about her son, struggles to stop being, first and foremost, a politicians wife (this is especially evident when she meets Matt, Johns friend and co-offender in the Mohammed stunt, her eyes glazing and arm extending as she informs him, repeatedly and insistently, that: Its very nice to meet you.) Ultimately and inevitably, his father, John Sr. shows up, his veneer of concern soon fracturing.

Shinns play is sharp and often amusing, with the now familiarly verbose air of an episode of The West Wing. It uses this one incident to highlight a raft of issues about American attitudes towards Islam, homosexuality and freedom of expression, and about the importance of convictions, of standing by ones own beliefs. At times the writing could be subtler, as is the case with the character of Tracy (Pamela Nomvete), the African American presidential advisor who happily swigs beer with the boys and chats to John about his break-up with his boyfriend before spouting blanket statements about Muslims all being poor and clinging to religion because its all they know. But wisely the play steers away from making any sweeping judgements about right and wrong in regards to Johns actions and the response to it.

Eddie Redmayne holds the attention as the angular and nervy, often soft-voiced, John and the other actors all turn in fine performances in their respective roles. But, what with Johns gayness, his past history of emotional breakdown, and all the other things Shinn throws in to the mix, theres enough going on here to merit a much longer play. Running at just over an hour, Now Or Later is a slender and static thing (set entirely in an expensively anonymous hotel room). There are so many arguments flying around it feels, at times, more like a Moral Maze debate than a play and the whole production had a flatness to it that no amount of good acting and sharp dialogue could lift.

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