Yes, Prime Minister

Yes, Prime Minister
By Antony Jay and Jonathan Lyn. Director Tom Gutteridge. Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. January 31 to March 4, 2012 – then National tour.

All through the eighties Jay and Lyn ruled the up-market end of British TV comedy with first Yes, Minister, then Yes, Prime Minister. The writing was clever, the performances superb and the entertainment unsurpassable for 28 minutes every week.

Strangely enough, 28 minutes is about the amount of time this play holds together before it starts to stagger and ultimately fall down. What was assured and confident satirical writing, lampooning government process, is now a 2 hour mish-mash of reworked but hackneyed jokes, and cobbled together minor plots, that don’t have the narrative strength or resolution to truly be a play. Moreover, the attempts to “update” politically – throwing in lines about “Global warming” (we call it climate change now) and Al Gore – already seem “dated”. Satire is replaced by vaudeville for much of the time. It’s not good theatre….but is it good entertainment? That, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and the hands of the cast and director.

Philip Quast is one of our finest exports, and no-one can blame him for not being Nigel Hawthorne. He gives Sir Humphrey a different take, but lacks the posturing, patronising pomposity and panache of the foppish public school boy. Ultimately, despite his handling of the tricky loquacious monologues, one can’t help but feel that THIS Sir Humphrey is essentially middle class… and the character interaction, as in the TV series, truly only works if the British class system is firmly in place. Moreover, the Sir Humphrey we all know and love would not be caught dead in the un-pressed poorly made suit Mister Quast has been given as wardrobe. It fares only slightly better than Bernard’s trousers, which are 5cms too long!

Mark Owen-Taylor does better, giving us an endearing Jim Hacker who owes more to Richard Briers than Paul Eddington. He’s totally believable up to the embarrassing “talking to God” thunderstorm sequence which is neither funny nor credible, given the cross-section of characters. By the time the play degenerates into farce, both Jim and Mark seem on the verge of hysteria.

John Lloyd Fillingham gives a classic comedic performance, making a feast out of the snack-sized material he has to work with. Alex Menglet shines by playing the drama with total commitment, but Caroline Craig seems miscast. Her English accent and diction are poor and not helped by the fact that so many of her lines are directed upstage. If one is going to write a female role such as this, give her a purpose and a very strong hook to hang her performance on. Nevertheless I couldn’t help thinking that Kate Fitzpatrick at her zenith would have made this a powerful female role.

Shaun Gurton’s set is suitably elegant, but why dress it with an Early Settlers Desk and a chair that even the under under UNDER Secretary would have returned to the typing pool?

What made the TV series so special was that it wasn’t about “gags”. It was about the DRAMA and power struggle of three men’s working lives and they did not play it for laughs. That’s why it was so funny. Everything we saw was credible and delicious because we weren’t meant to know what went on behind the scenes. That is satire. For some reason the director didn’t “get it” or was railroaded by the authors. When the play degenerates into total farce, with drinks flying, the PM under the table, and Jim Hacker impersonating Winston Churchill and mugging on BBC live television, all credibility is lost.

Amidst mostly disappointed murmurings on the way out, my partner said “Iconoclasm reduced to slapstick”, a much more succinct phrase than this review. But will some of the audience feel the entertainment worthy of the price of a ticket? Er….Yes, Prime Minister.

Coral Drouyn

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