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Yes, Prime Minister

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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'House Full' notices outside the Gielgud, following a record-breaking sell-out season at Chichester earlier this year, testify to the pulling power in the title of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s political farce, which re-unites the hapless puppet Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, with his string-pulling Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby.

David Haig, apoplectic and down-at-heel as the PM, and Henry Goodman, pop-eyed and oily as Sir Humphrey, do an excellent job in bearing no resemblance at all to their much loved, much subtler predecessors in the television series, Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

But Lynn’s broad production has coarsened still further since Chichester; the playing has acquired a desperation that stifles laughter. And there still remains the unpleasant, unfunny business of paedophilia in the terms of political agreement; before he signs the deal on the oil pipe-line, the unseen Kumranistan foreign secretary demands an under-age prostitute.

Side issues involve an attack on the BBC and the attempted manipulation of the unseen cook’s daughter into the plot; surely the PM’s special policy adviser (Emily Joyce) could have been called into more active service?

Despite all the references to a hung parliament, European legislation, global warming and fear of the Daily Mail, the play seems more old-fashioned and remote than an Aldwych farce. But if you’ve not seen Haig going demented with frustration before, and banging his own head on the furniture, you should probably catch his performance before he explodes.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from May 2010, and this production's premiere at the Chichester Festival Theatre

There was a time when Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister were almost compulsory television. The witty depictions of the tensions between the civil service and the elected politicians, and the absence of political leanings, meant the show had a fan-base across the political spectrum, and 25 years since its last transmission, it’s still remembered fondly.

The last few months has seen a real interest in politics and the mechanics of power so the timing of writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s resurrection this much-loved comedy, also directed by Lynn, couldn’t have been more apt. Sadly, the stage version has lost some of the power of the original.

It’s not just that the world has moved on in the intervening years - 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.

The political even-handedness has gone too. With swipes at the EU, the BBC and global warming scientists, it’s like being battered by a copy of the Daily Mail for a couple of hours. There has been a concession to modernity with the appearance of a Blackberry and the addition of a special advisor, but these just seem like they’ve been bolted on to the script as afterthoughts.

That’s not to say that funny lines are absent. There are plenty of laughs, particularly in the first half as prime minister David Haig is baffled by the smooth linguistic tricks and Latin maxims of his civil servants. There’s even a reference to the current coalition, suggesting a work being constantly updated.

As Humphrey Appleby, Henry Goodman’s rendition is too close an imitation of Nigel Hawthorne’s television portrayal, but without the smug omniscience. Haig’s excellent Jim Hacker, however, is a complete contrast to Paul Eddington’s hapless minister. And Jonathan Slinger’s Bernard is a triumph, a delightful depiction of a man caught between public duty and private ambition and whose vivid facial expressions capture the soul of a man being pulled apart by contrasting forces. Emily Joyce’s policy advisor is an interesting counterpoint to the scheming of the civil servant – but there’s little sign of the tensions between the two sides.

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.

- Maxwell Cooter


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