YES, PRIME MINISTER
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th May, 2013
Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have updated their fondly remembered TV sitcom for this new stage version – the familiar characters are there but the piece feels wholly up-to-the-minute.
The scene is Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. Over the course of a weekend, the fate of the government, Europe and the civil service is decided when an international crisis is provoked and just about averted. Simon Higlett’s set, all wooden panels and leather-bound books, suggests strength and permanence – two qualities rarely present in government!
It begins like a drawing-room comedy, with cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby popping out epigrams like champagne corks His view of what makes a PM is “No previous experience, no qualifications, and limited intelligence.” Seems about right. As Sir Humphrey, Crispin Redman expunges the brilliant ghost of Nigel Hawthorne and makes the character his own, in a masterly portrayal of snobbishness, privilege and devious manipulations.
The PM, by contrast, is less erudite and slower on the uptake. Michael Fenton Stevens rants about our fellow Europeans in a litany of politically incorrect and derogatory names – and you can’t help wondering what our current PM blurts out behind closed doors. Fenton Stevens’s Jim Hacker is a tightly wound spring, kept that way by Sir Humphrey’s evasions. The play says what the TV series said: it’s really the civil service that has the power, the appointed officials rather than the elected representatives.
There are topical jokes aplenty and many examples of impenetrable verbiage and double-talk for the actors to get their teeth into. There’s a very amusing sequence when principal private secretary Bernard (Michael Matus) takes a phone call from the BBC and reels off stock answers from a pre-prepared folder, exactly the kind of fobbing-off MPs give us every time they speak to the media.
Matus is excellent as bungling Bernard – the playing is broader than you get on television and this version needs it to be. There is a danger the whole thing could become rather static and overly wordy, but the energised performances keep the pace fast and the characters engaging.
In the second act, Fenton Stevens dominates as Jim Hacker falls apart, becoming more manic and desperate by the second. It’s a hilarious display of fury and sarcasm that ends up with him cowering under his own desk.
The plot is farcical but not Whitehall farcical, so to speak. It’s like a chess game played by committee as Hacker and his advisors try to think their way in and out of trouble. Their quick fire discussions cover a lot of ground: oil deals, the environment, curbing the civil service, religion’s place in government, morality… Hacker makes a salient point when he advocates experts within departments, such as actual teachers in the Department of Education, clinicians in the Health Service… It’s a lovely idea and preferable to those Hacker calls ‘amateurs’ that we have today.
You really have to pay attention to catch all the barbs but your concentration is rewarded with some sharp satire and deftly played comedy. This, being a sitcom-based piece, has the status quo restored by the end. Like the sturdy set, the established order remains; only those rushing about and making fools of themselves within it come and go.
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