Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

‘Frost/Nixon’ by St John’s Drama Society – Review 

With my ramshackle GCSE/Wikipedia knowledge of 70’s American politics, I feared that I would struggle to follow this student adaptation of David Morgan’s 2006 work about the 1977 Nixon interviews – an unexpected choice for a student play, perhaps. Luckily, my fears were misplaced. Elspeth Rogers’ production sweeps its audience along in a tale of power, popularity, and politics. Frost/Nixon is about much more than a television exchange between ambitious media man David Frost and a President looking to come back from the wilderness. It tells the story of men obsessed with fame and driven by the attention of others. 

The play is jointly narrated by Jim Reston (Georgina Cooper), who joins Frost’s crack team to strategize on interviews that hope to nail Nixon as a criminal once and for all, and Jack Brennan (Philip Nedelev), the ex-President’s Chief of Staff who is loyal to his core. Thanks to Rei Tracks’s excellent lighting design, Reston and Brennan ‘step out’ of the narrative to provide a retrospective on events through clever spotlighting and precisely timed cues. 

Rohan Joshi is a star turn as President Nixon. His wounded gait, booming American accent, and measured pace of delivery kept the audience rapt. If Joshi was aware of the pressure of taking a difficult lead role as a fresher, it did not show. One scene worthy of particular praise is a telephone conversation between Nixon and Frost in which Joshi expertly portrays Nixon’s angst as it reaches a crescendo, lamenting his distance from the dizzying heights of Washington while effectively in exile on the Western Seaboard. Another is the final interview, specifically on Watergate, in which Frost finally strikes home with the revelation of new evidence and Nixon is shown to be a sweating, farcical demagogue, desperately asserting that ‘well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal’. 

Sol Woodroffe, in the role of Frost, delivers a powerful performance as an early television news ‘star’ at a time where the power of such globalised popular culture was only just emerging. His recklessness is brought to the fore when Frost contritely asks why nobody tried to stop him after the failure of the first three interviews to get anything interesting or compromising (and ideally both) out of Nixon. The venture is especially risky as Frost has paid Nixon $600,000 for the privilege of interviewing him, a figure negotiated up by Nixon’s greedy and seedy talent agent, ‘Swifty’ Lazar (Hasina Ibrahim). 

 After all, with the confidence to fund much of the interviews himself given a lack of backing from big networks and sponsors, Frost is a man driven by vainglorious, vaulting ambition which chafes against the other characters in a frequently humorous way. Frost spends a cringe comedic transatlantic flight with co-passenger Caroline Cushing (Freya Thomas) and his snazzy brown Italian shoes produce many a laugh in themselves as a source of much fascination from Nixon and others. 

John Birt (Blaze Pierzchniak) and Bob Zelnick (again Hasina Ibrahim) round out the cast of characters and Frost’s team. Each have their own backstories that only serve to raise the stakes surrounding the outcome of the interviews. The plot is infused with a note of nervous desperation that makes the moments of comic relief – including Nedelev’s (improvised) comment that Nixon ‘got that dawg in him’ – an enjoyable counterweight to the dynamic tension that Joshi and Woodroffe bring so expertly to the fore. 

Particularly striking is the play’s musings on the unfortunate blurring between media, stardom, and politics. Jim Reston, a man desperate to publicize Nixon’s crimes for the good of the American people, closes the show with the comment that at one of Frost’s (in)famous parties, filled with star figures from government and media alike, it was difficult to know where the showbiz ended and the politics began. In today’s Trumpian era of politics as entertainment, where even on these shores it is seemingly normal to witness Rishi Sunak take a bet with Piers Morgan, the play’s message – teased out skilfully by this student cast – continues to bear hugely on our perception of public life today.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles