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Review Round-up: Critics Say Yes to Minister

The new season at Chichester's Festival Theatre kicked off last week (20 May, previews from 13 May), with the world premiere of Yes, Prime Minister, adapted for the stage by the writers of the classic sitcom - Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (who also directs).

Prime Minister Jim Hacker (David Haig), Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Henry Goodman) and his Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley face a country in financial meltdown, with the only prospect of salvation coming from morally dubious allies – leading to "deliciously comic consequences".
  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “The TV show lasted 30 minutes and centred on the believability of the main characters. Stretching the premise out to more than two hours means that the plot becomes more important - and more implausible. It feels as if the writers couldn’t decide whether it should be a continuation of the TV programme or a farce; as a result, it falls uncomfortably between the two. Throw in some additional, and unnecessary, characters and it starts to look over-loaded, running noticeably out of steam in the second half… There’s surely still a place on TV for clever and sophisticated writers like Jay and Lynn, but this play is not the best representation of their talents despite the hard work of the cost and the smattering of genuine wit.”
  • Kate Bassett in the Independent – “This post-election comedy by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn brings the Westminster characters from their much-loved TV sitcom up to date… I have to say I found this more depressingly cynical than hilarious. At the same time, I admired the flash of Swiftian, satirically sharp teeth. There is an undermining weakness, though, in the plethora of sub plots – taking in sulking Americans, U-turns on global warming, the BBC Director General and illegal immigrants. Lynn and Jay struggle to work all these into the escalating farce, and be up to the minute… The main new character is Claire (Emily Joyce), a swanky special policy adviser who vies with Sir Humphrey but whose character isn't yet quite in focus. Goodman's darting fits of panic are more droll, as is Haig's comic timing, chest puffed with bravura then deflating like a popped balloon.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “How wonderful it is to have them back. More than twenty years on from the acclaimed television series, Jim Hacker, that most embattled and craven of prime ministers, and Sir Humphrey Appleby, the most devious and obscurantist of senior civil servants, are back, and in truly vintage form in a new stage play… There is no attempt at slavish imitation of the originals. There is more steel and less silk in Goodman’s Appleby, even more craven panic and farcical desperation in Haig’s Hacker. The comedy however remains as politically sharp, and as blissfully funny, as ever… It’s a wonderful show that taps into all our current scepticism about those who presume to lead us, and a smash hit if I ever saw one.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “This is not a simple replica of the popular 1980s TV series. Even if writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn couldn't be expected to foresee the comic possibilities of coalition, they recognise that the power balance inside politics has radically changed, and that Jim Hacker has become more presidential, while being ever more dependent on others. The result is to push satire, legitimately in my view, into the zany realm of farce… Farce is about a world spinning out of control; and that is what we see as Hacker, governing with a threadbare majority, faces a crisis weekend at Chequers… Even if Sir Humphrey is no longer the puppet-master he once was, Henry Goodman invests him with a Machiavellian smoothness and shows an astonishing capacity to reel off obfuscatory soliloquies on a single breath. Jonathan Slinger also turns the loyal Bernard into a troubled moralist, and Emily Joyce conveys the rising power of the special adviser who, as it happens, always gives bad advice.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "After a sedate start, plausibility is extravagantly stretched. Fortunately, the jokes come thick and fast. While the targets are largely predictable - greedy bankers, the BBC, the European Union - the writing has a relentless energy... Henry Goodman’s Sir Humphrey is a prissy mandarin who mixes arch-refinement with unctuous evasiveness. His sidekick Bernard (the excellent Jonathan Slinger) manages the unlikely feat of being both toadlike and hectic. Emily Joyce is nicely poised as the PM’s special adviser. But it’s David Haig as Hacker who has the best lines, and his adroit timing and nervous vitality impel the production... It’s entertaining, certainly, but its outrageousness feels a bit strenuous."
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (three stars) – “In this joke-rich resuscitation, Jim Hacker is hanging on to power by his fingernails. Parliament is hung. The economy is knackered. But, never mind the special adviser who creeps into Hacker’s study at Chequers via a false wall, Sir Humphrey is still firmly of the opinion that politicians should let civil servants get on with running the country… The performances are strong, even if Emily Joyce tries too hard to force some character into her underwritten part as Hacker’s special adviser… By the end, Hacker and Humphrey talk their way out of trouble and you’re not sure whether to be glad or not. Maybe that’s the point. You will laugh. But this coarser Yes, Prime Minister is hard to love.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “The audience loved it. Aphorisms abounded. There were even a couple of topical references to coalition government… The comic timing is sound. But a corner of me remained unmoved… Yet Mr Goodman does not really murmur anything, at least not in a convincing manner. He smiles too much for a top civil servant… Mr Slinger is slightly better as Bernard Woolley, the PM's principal private secretary, although just as Mr Goodman suffers in comparison to the TV version's Nigel Hawthorne, so Mr Slinger lacks the quiet patience Derek Fowlds brought to the part… David Haig's Jim Hacker is, well, David Haig. No one does rising panic quite like Mr Haig… The Chichester audience did not demur at the risque elements of the plot. On the whole, the humour has an old-fashioned feel and is a safe distance from the tartness of The Thick Of It."
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