Yes, Prime Minister

Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, and touring
(2011)

Yes, Prime Minister production photo

The two TV series Yes, Minister followed by Yes, Prime Minister were aired between 1980 and 1988. The present modernised version was first performed in 2010, 30 years after the earliest performances. It is a credit to writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn that the original idea has held up so well and that the political issues explored in the play are very much of the moment.

The original series was premised on the notion that, contrary to public expectation, a Prime Minister, far from being a powerful, dominating figure, was in fact in thrall to the much more experienced, wily, and sometimes deliberately obstructive civil servants surrounding him (or in Mrs Thatcher's case, her). The balance of power and the personnel have changed slightly in the current production. Blustering, indecisive Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, is still dependent on the convoluted advice proffered by Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and each is prepared to let Hacker's Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley, take the rap in the event of disaster. To this familiar trio, a new face is added, Claire Appleby, representative of the burgeoning group of Special Policy Advisors, who have played an increasingly important role in parliamentary politics since the 1980s.

At the outset of the performance, and once the main characters had been established, I wondered how the half hour format of the TV series could be extended to fill a whole evening of theatrical entertainment. The answer lay in a splendid plot, centred on the visiting Prime Minister of Kumranistan, a guest for the weekend at Chequers, who demanded an underage schoolgirl as a sexual companion for the night. This request had to be taken seriously, because all sorts of government and civil service interests, including an all-important oil treaty, were dependent on keeping the Kumranistan Prime Minister sweet.

This was a play dense with topical political reference: the current economic downturn; oil dependence; the EU; the war in Afghanistan; illegal immigrants; trafficked women; government attitudes to the Arts and the BBC; exposure in the press; global warming; and much more. It was important to listen carefully, so as not to miss the many little nuggets of humour that were being mined. And all with a light touch, in the best tradition of British satire stretching from Chaucer, through Swift, Pope, Wilde, Coward to Alan Bennett.

The play was set in a spacious, book lined drawing room at Chequers, with a large window looking out on leafy Autumnal tints, and allowing for a spectacular downpour and thunderstorm. Lighting and special effects were excellent throughout.

There were outstanding performances from the highly accomplished cast. Richard McCabe brought more grit to the role of Hacker than we had become used to from Paul Eddington in the TV series. Consequently the balance in the relationship with Simon Williams' Sir Humphrey had shifted slightly. Williams' performance was more mercurial and less assertive than Nigel Hawthorne's, but he handled the linguistic convolutions of the lengthy soliloquies superbly, drawing appreciative applause from the large audience. Charlotte Lucus was entirely convincing as the new generation, hard boiled, cynical female fixer, completely unscrupulous in her attitude to exploited women. Kevork Malikyan brought a whiff of alternative cultural values in his presentation of the Kunranistan Ambassador; and Chris Larkin as Bernard, though still at the bottom of the pecking order, displayed and occasionally asserted a moral innocence lacking in the other characters.

There was an interesting sequence in the final scene, when Hacker was seen addressing a speech to camera on stage, which the audience viewed simultaneously on large TV monitors. It was chilling that what clearly appeared as satire in the stage action was almost totally convincing and real on the TV monitors. The moment provided an insight into the power of the talking head.

The production continues at the Lyceum until 21 May when it returns to London for the final part of its run.

David Chadderton reviewed this production at The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: Velda Harris