It is more than 30 years since Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby first revealed the hilarious machinations of Whitehall to an unsuspecting television audience. Both the original actors may have departed this life, but that hasn’t stopped the characters from returning to the Westminster fray in the guise of a new stage play by the authors Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.
This Prime Minister is thoroughly modern, helming a coalition government through financial crises, immigration minefields and global warming with all the bungling naivety we’ve come to expect from Hacker. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Sir Humphrey attempts to pull the mandarin strings to get his own way.
There’s everything in this production that marked out the television series as a gem – with the exception, of course, of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in the main roles. So we have sharp political satire, Sir Humphrey’s pompous blasts of obfuscating erudition and the permanently edgy figure of the principal private secretary, Bernard, hovering lamely in the background. Simon Williams offers a commanding performance as Sir Humphrey, totally on top of his challenging dialogue and winning justified rounds of applause for his verbal dexterity. Opposite him, Richard McCabe is well judged and perfectly timed in his combination of conviction and bewilderment as the out-of-his-depth PM.
The script itself is something of a curate’s egg – blisteringly funny and pointed in places, gentle and tame in others – but there are several notable moments of high comedy and plenty of barbs thrown in at the expense of everyone from the BBC to the Daily Mail.
Simon Higlett’s beautiful set, evoking the PM’s study at Chequers, also deserves a mention, and Lynn’s direction keeps things moving at a rattling pace, even if the overwhelming detail of the plot at times becomes as confusing as one of Sir Humphrey’s rants.
It’s hardly a state-of-the-nation play, but as an updated revisiting of an old favourite, it does exactly what it says on the tin.