Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are listed by the British Film Institute in the top ten television shows of all time. This play felt like a franchise of those series and one that delivered no surprises.
The formulaic plot has been updated for content. Jim Hacker (Mark Owen -Taylor), hapless PM is being manipulated by his clever, controlling Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey (Philip Quast) as the European union crisis looms large. Quast makes a suitably pompous and erudite civil servant, delivering quips in effective deadpan and huge verbose contorted monologues when avoiding simple answers. Owen-Taylor plays counterpoint to Quast, but lacks some finesse in scenes where hysteria builds. Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary (John Lloyd Fillingham) as the moral and learned lackey is delightful in the role, standing at ballet position three, with overlong trousers and a great sense of timing and physical comedy.
Sir Humphrey has naturally engineered a plan to bring in millions and solve the debt crises, withholding crucial information about the cost to the PM and Britain and his own ulterior motives. Hacker is given a clue by Bernard that all is not what it seems and his Special Policy Advisor; Claire Sutton (Caroline Craig) helps him discover the subterfuge. This addition of a woman in the male dominated party politics seems calculated. It was as though someone may have written “insert woman in role here” as a token to updated content and political correctness. The role is essentially to be a female within the exact same mould as all the male characters on stage. There was perhaps opportunity for the writers to explore some alternate issues, but they stick like glue to the original (admittedly winning) formula. Hacker holds the proposed bill about Civil Service Reform over Sir Humphrey to make him toe the line.
Added to the European crisis is the global warming debate and the demands for an under aged prostitute from the Kumranistan Minister, clearly articulated in a treatise on cultural norms and impositions of secular morals by the Kumranistan Ambassador (Alex Menglet). This is perhaps the most believable character and portrayed beautifully with a world weary diplomacy by Menglet. If the PM does not indulge the sexual whims of the Minister the oil deal which could solve Europe’s debt crisis is off. The PM is now faced with a moral dilemma of choosing between sacrifice of a young girl – they euphemize this into the term “Eurojob” and the sacrifice of millions in the countries affected. It transpires the cook at Chequers is an illegal alien, with a young daughter. Sutton ill advisedly approaches the young girl to perform the “Eurojob” and the cook, hearing of this starts to go to the press.
Naturally the press must be put off the scent and the PM must turn up smelling of roses in the end. The BBC is cajoled through threats of withdrawal of funding to the Director General (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) to do a ‘live’ broadcast. Sir Humphrey turns things around at the zero hour, so that the PM’s interview with the BBC Presenter (Russell Fletcher) becomes a triumph of diversion and high moral ground.
Although comparisons between stage and television series may be unfair, they will inevitably be made and this play will suffer in the comparison. The second act was repetitious and covered the same dilemmas in many guises, with an appeal to God thrown in. Disciplined and talented actors on a beautiful static set cannot make up for the overlong extension of a plot which would have been much funnier if filmed and limited to half an hour. An undemanding night at the theatre, with a few laughs probably sits well with the intended audience. How delightful it would have been to come in knowing what to expect and have that expectation turned on its head.
As my companion said on the way out “I’m afraid it’s …No Prime Minister”.