Yes, Prime Minister
An embattled Prime Minister steering a fragile coalition through a period of financial uncertainty - sound familiar?
While desperately trying to broker a deal to save the European economy from total meltdown while grappling with the self-serving machinations of the people employed to help him carry out his democratic mandate: is it a tense dramatisation of our current extraordinary political situation? Is it a scathing satire on political hypocrisy? Is it a hilarious farce? No, it’s Yes, Prime Minister live on stage at the Apollo, and it’s none of these things.
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Yes, Prime Minister and its predecessor Yes, Minister are – quite rightly – considered classics of British comedy: a gentle, but pointed satire of Civil Service dominance and doublespeak, with writing that was frequently inspired. Its writers – Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn – have reunited for this 2010 stage version, bringing the classic trio of characters, PM Jim Hacker, his manipulative permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and pedantic principal private secretary Bernard Woolley into the 21st Century. Sadly, they don’t go willingly: for all the self-conscious references to tweeting and BlackBerrys this production could have been written 30 years ago, and has little to say to post-Alastair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker audiences.
Where the script does show intermittent flashes of its old genius, the cast are on hand to make sure any moments of genuine humour or psychological insight are stifled before anyone starts having a good time. Presumably cast for his jowly resemblance to a bipartisan lovechild of David Cameron and John Prescott (shudder), Richard McCabe could have been passable as Prime Minister, but ruins the illusion of reality by adopting bizarre, cartoonish gestures – such as getting under his desk to hide, or falling off his chair in shock. It’s easy to imagine the scene in rehearsal where the director asked him to do this: “Look, we just need to do something to make this bit funnier, so why don’t you…I don’t know… get under your desk for a bit?... Yes I know your character wouldn’t conceivably do that.”
Actually, scrub that, it’s not easy to imagine there being a director at all; the actors wander round the set, sitting down and standing up at random, as if worrying that if they keep still too long, people will start noticing the failings of the script. Chris Larkin as Bernard seems to have been told that gurning and looking confused is the best way to express to the audience his character’s inner struggle and Simon Williams’ Sir Humphrey, who at least has the excuse that he was fending off a sore throat, is nervous, twitchy and uncommitted, a poor relation to Nigel Hawthorne’s deadly smooth civil servant of the television show.
The biggest misfire, though, comes in the form of a plot twist, which has Hacker and his entourage deliberating on whether to procure an underage prostitute for a visiting foreign diplomat who’s staying at Chequers. Politicians are – often justly – held in low regard these days, but it takes an extraordinary degree of cynicism to believe that a serving Prime Minister would actually contemplate bringing a child prostitute to his official residence. In a production where, unlike The Thick of It, you’re broadly meant to find the characters likeable, for all their incompetence and Machiavellian scheming, this attempt to inject some ‘edge’ comes off as tasteless and ill-judged.
If this were – say – a bank holiday, one-off special edition of the show on Radio 4, with a decent cast and a ruthless script editor, it might just work. But should you fork out 50 quid to sit in a theatre and watch it? No, Prime Minister.
Words: Simon Heafield
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