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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Yes, Prime Minister
Gielgud Theatre, Winter 2010 - 2011; Apollo Theatre Summer 2011; Gielgud Autumn 2011; Trafalgar Studios Summer-Winter 2012

(Each of the revivals had cast changes.)

This spin-off of the popular 1980s TV sitcom has about as many laughs as three or four episodes of the original - which is to say quite a few. If it wavers and loses energy occasionally, fans of the original and newcomers they bring along to introduce to the fun should be well satisfied.

For the uninitiated, the series was built on the continual sparring of Jim Hacker, a Member of Parliament, later Prime Minister, and Sir Humphrey Appleby, the senior civil servant whose mission in life was to keep him from actually doing anything. Usually Sir Humphrey won out, though occasionally Hacker proved he had learned the game well enough to win a round.

Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, authors of the TV series, and directed by Lynn, the stage version updates things with references to the banking crisis, global warming and the like, but the major shift is a certain warming between the PM and Sir Humphrey, the two now less antagonists than allies constantly frustrated by their differences in method and philosophy.

The plot centres on a foreign diplomat they have to keep happy at all costs, even though his kinky sexual tastes raise moral and logistic problems, and much of the fun lies in watching them twist themselves into all sorts of pretzels trying to figure out how to pander (literally) to him while still maintaining some tenuous hold on morality, legality and Britishness.

As delightful as that gag is, it does begin to run out of steam about midway through the evening, and the authors inject temporary energy with some essentially irrelevant but audience-pleasing picking on the BBC before things begin to peter out again toward the end.

Along the way there are plenty of political jokes, some of them older than the original TV series, like calling the Prime Minister's position 'the only job that requires no previous experience' or reacting to the thought of a hung parliament with 'Hanging's too good for them', and there is the peep-behind-the-political-curtain that no less an authority than Margaret Thatcher certified as remarkably accurate.

The stage version would have been impossible without successful replacements for the much-loved stars of the TV series, Paul Eddington as Hacker and Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey. And here the producers have been extraordinarily fortunate, because David Haig and Henry Goodman are so perfect for the roles that they come perilously close to eclipsing all memory of the originals.

Both men are accomplished farceurs, and know that the secret to comic acting is to play it as tragedy and not be seen trying for laughs. Haig is a master of doubletakes, and the script gives him plenty of opportunities to react with varying degrees of disbelief, astonishment and pure panic at Sir Humphrey's shenanigans or the twists of the plot. And Goodman delights in the several arias of pure gobbledegook the authors have given the civil servant to spout whenever he is asked a simple yes-or-no question.

They're ably supported by Jonathan Slinger and Emily Joyce as political aides, Sam Dastor as a dryly amused foreigner, William Chubb as the harried BBC man and Tim Wallers as a TV interviewer with familiar mannerisms.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Yes Prime Minister -  Gielgud 2010, Apollo 2011

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