Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Yes, Prime Minister” which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 11 May
There can’t be that many plays that start with the bleeping BBC News theme… especially one that then goes on to bait the Beeb so mercilessly. Maybe writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn feel rather sore that their wonderful 1980s creation is now confined to a satellite channel. But then again, the BBC appears to be almost sponsoring this new stage production of the classic comedy. In the end it’s all speculation … which is, of course, the meat and drink of politics.
This Chichester Festival Theatre touring production is very much a Ronseal show. “It does exactly what it says on the tin”, delivering a whole new battery of sharp pokes at politics and politicians in a recession-hit, hung parliament… though, as Sir Humphrey points out, “hanging’s too good for them”.
There are a good many clever jokes in a pretty unbelievable plot which revolves around the ethics of using the Queen’s Flight to transport three prostitutes to Chequers to satisfy the desires of a shady East European diplomat, who might just save the European economy in return. In other words, “horizontal diplomacy”.
It’s a farce of words. Everyone keeps their trousers on, and the doors don’t bang that much, but Brian Rix would have no difficulty recognising the genre. It’s effectively a present-day, full-length episode of the original TV show with Michael Fenton Stevens and Crispin Redman slipping easily into the roles of Prime Minister Jim Hacker and his wily Civil Servant with no shadow of the ghosts of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.
Redman is particularly superb, delivering his gibberish policy explanations with the smarmy charm of Kenneth Williams and the bitter wit of Basil Fawlty, and being rewarded with applause for his aplomb.
Stevens neatly recaptures Hacker’s strange dichotomy – being completely unable to grasp any kind of political situation whilst explaining them perfectly in front of the BBC cameras.
Michael Matus, as Bernard, has a hilarious scene, using a red book of pro-former answers to fend off impertinent press enquiries. The excuses are all so laughingly recognisable, one suspects Jay and Lynn’s secret book actually exists in the Chequers library.
There’s plenty of scope for cliché characters. When the BBC’s “latest” Director General (played by Tony Boncza) pops into Chequers for a spot of ritual humiliation he looks just like an ageing arts producer with floppy grey hair, linen jacket and crumpled open-neck shirt. And the role of the Ambassador of the remote oil producing country of Kumranistan is eloquently delivered by Simon Holmes as an English pubic school product – more Eton brick than Eastern Block.
Jay and Lynn supply the cast with plenty of recent material with references to wind farms, global warming and American drones (which are fine, as along as the Yanks are careful). But the script seems set and the option for off-the-cuff jokes (about UKIP, for example) is unused. Which is a bit of a pity. But it’s the only disappointment in an otherwise cleverly scripted and consummately delivered show, with a deeply uncanny authenticity.
Listening to the 10 o’clock BBC Radio News on the way home, I began to suspect Jay and Lynn had written that too.
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