Yes, Prime Minister

Yes, Prime Minister

Andrew Guild, Simon Bryce and Tim Woods 

QPAC Playhouse

4th – 22nd July 2012

Reviewed by Stephen Moore

What a week of theatre!

It started with La Voix Humaine at La Boite, continued with the touring production of boy girl wall at the Nambour Civic Centre, and ended with Yes, Prime Minister – quite the gamut of performance.  From the dark dense fusion piece re-imagining a classic French drama where a one-woman play is teased out into three roles, and the physical whimsy of a one-man show about three people (well two people and an inanimate object with a conscience), destined to be an Australian classic, to a classic British satirical TV series re-written for the stage.  And what did all these have in common?  Absolutely nothing!  Alright, a darkened space with people sitting still, looking at a lit space with fewer people moving about and saying things, but that’s about it.

Yes, Prime Minister

Yes, Prime Minister is a new play which premiered in England in 2010 and was written by the same two men (Anthony Jay and Jonathon Lynn) who wrote the original TV series, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister which dominated the small screen in the 1980s.  I well remember when the TV show hit our shores – the comment was that it was an all too true expose of the Civil Service (Public Service), with the hapless Jim Hacker, politician, being manipulated by Sir Humphrey Appleby with his expert double-speak, and the bumbling, too-honest-for-his-own-good, Bernard Woolley.

A huge critical and popular success, the series received a number of awards, including several BAFTAs and in 2004 came sixth in the Britain’s Best Sit-com poll. It was reputed to be the favourite television program of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher.  The play edges closer to farce than the TV series.

The question is how do you turn a half hour sit-com into a two-act play?  With great difficulty it seems. Their answer is to take a very sharp turn to the dark side, which didn’t sit comfortably with the first night audience.  To take the lighthearted, sophisticated comedy of the TV shows and throw in a moral dilemma might be fine and work, but why did it have to be something as repugnant as pedophilia?

The set up is a typical farcical political scenario of a government in crisis and a Prime Minister in trouble – high stakes, check; face-saving salvation at hand – check; complicating factor – check.  And then the shocker – a visiting dignitary requests an underage schoolgirl for sex; essentially blackmailing the team by threatening the ‘face-saving salvation’.  Of all the devises to use, surely this is amongst the most distasteful; I’m not suggesting it isn’t a topic to be presented on stage and discussed – I’ve played two characters that were pedophiles (in Still Life and La Ronde)and won two awards for the former and sickened the audience with the latter, but the context was very different.  Both plays were dramas; can someone please explain to me why anyone would put such a serious issue as the centrepiece of a satirical comedy?

The production itself was fine – impressive box set of the study at Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s country residence, replete with paneled walls, secret entrance through a bookcase, portraits, furniture and huge dominating window with beautifully twilight-lit garden behind; although I did find the scale a little overwhelming, especially when characters that are meant to be in a quiet conversation are seated on opposite sides of the stage.  There really aren’t that many characters on stage to warrant the expansive set.

Mark Owen-Taylor as Jim Hacker the Prime Minister does a wonderful job of a complex character, seemingly swinging instantaneously and effortlessly from confident statesman to blubbering baby hiding under his desk.  This is a different Jim Hacker than in the TV series I remember – more in control and confident; similarly Sir Humphrey Appleby is a different beast, especially in the hands of Tony Llewellyn-Jones – less in control and confident.  Llewellyn–Jones is listed as an understudy in the programme, but no announcement was made that he was replacing Philip Quast.  There were a few stumbles on opening night, but there was also a smattering of applause at the end of several long and wonderfully convoluted typical ‘Sir Humphrey’ speeches.  John Lloyd Fillingham was a highlight as the Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, bringing some delightful physicality to the part.  Caroline Craig was less impressive as Claire Sutton, Special Policy Advisor; there was an odd quality to her voice and movement that didn’t fit with all the other actors and it was jarring.  Also not particularly impressive was Alex Menglet as the Kumranistan Ambassador; there just wasn’t anything going on there.

The promising start, with a good ripple of laughter building, was vintage Yes, Prime Minister, that then disappeared completely into the black hole of the ‘moral dilemma’, returned ever so briefly at the top of Act 2 (interval drinks perhaps?), before spluttering out and rallied at the end.  The warm applause for the curtain call said it all; this was no rapturous ovation, just an appreciation of the hard work put in by the actors.  Despite the bang-up-to-date references, the whole thing felt old-fashioned.

Yes, Prime Minister

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