Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s hit BBC comedies, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are considered among the top ten series of all-time (according to the British Film Institute) and have won numerous awards including the BAFTA, Broadcasting Press Guild and Pye Television Writer’s Awards among many others.
It’s been 24 years since they last worked together and Lynn and Jay have reunited to write an up to date version of Yes, Prime Minister for the stage… and what a welcome influence these writers are.
It is the acerbic wit and political insight that is the trademark of these writers and the success of this production. These guys were producing political satire before Aaron Sorkin got stuck into The West Wing and the Working Dog team even conceived of The Hollowmen.
The writing is fast-paced and very relevant to today’s political climate. Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Mark Owen-Taylor) has found himself in more than one difficult situation on the eve of an EU conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the British Prime Minister. To deal with his many issues, he relies on his trusted Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey (Philip Quast), his Special Policy Adviser (Caroline Craig) and his Principal Private Secretary, Bernard (John Lloyd Fillingham).
Some of the situations are ridiculous, others are perhaps a little close to the bone. It is the constant thought of “wow, that could actually have happened” that sits in the audience’s mind throughout the cracking fast paced dialogue and physical humour of the play.
The ensemble of performers in this Australian production do great justice to the writing. Owen-Taylor is Basil Fawlty-esque in his “patheticness”. While this Prime Minister is perhaps a little more crafty and a little less gormless than his TV counterpart, there is no doubting he is under the thumb of the estimable Sir Humphrey (famously portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne on TV and taken into his own on stage by Quast).
The role of Humphrey is so iconic to lovers of the TV series that it must be no small undertaking for Quast to create his own take on the character while still being loyal to the genre. Quast is a little more “camp” and perhaps not quite as manipulative and cunning as the original and this fresh Humphrey is highly entertaining. His gravitas and the ability to reel off a lengthy diatribe to avoid answering questions is not only genius in the writing but a real stand-out in the performances that keeps the giggles coming… just answer the question!
Almost stealing the show however, is John Lloyd Fillingham as the often downtrodden and hapless Bernard. The physicality shown by Fillingham can halt the show just through posture or a facial expression. He is a great foil to Quast and Owen-Taylor and provides a lot of the entertainment for audience members unable to keep up with the speedy political jargon.
It is these three performances combined with the true-to-the-original writing that makes this production so enjoyable, ably supported by the remainder of the cast. Tom Gutteridge as director must be commended for reining it all in and finding the moments for the cast and the words to shine. Equally, Shaun Gurton’s set is sumptuous and befitting of a British Prime Minister and appropriately does not distract from the visual comedy on stage.
Fans of the BBC TV show will not be disappointed and will lap up this modern offering. Anyone who follows European politics will laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of politics (with a couple of Australian references for good measure).
For even more of a giggle, check out the “secret memos” of Sir Humphrey online http://sirhumphreyappleby2010.blogspot.com.au/
Yes, Prime Minister has only a short season in Adelaide and will move to open in Perth on Thursday 31 May at His Majesty’s Theatre. Visit www.yesprimeminister.com.au for more details.