Back in September 2010, I reviewed Yes Prime Minister at the Gielgud Theatre, where I wrote:
The result is a farce that works well throughout. The political satire may aim for obvious targets – European projects derailed by national self-interests, the BBC’s uneasy relationship with government, general confusion on all sides about climate change – but it pretty much nails them every time…
…At times, the pace does flag a bit, particularly in the second act. But the bigger problem, post-interval, is one of casting structure. Sir Humphrey is absent for most of Act Two, which unbalances the dynamic and forces Bernard to assume more of the cunning and guile of his mentor than his character should possess.
All that remains true, now that the production has returned to the West End after a UK tour. In its new home of Trafalgar Studios, sitting appropriately at the top of Whitehall, Yes Prime Minister remains a fun farce, albeit one where the fast pace is verbal rather than physical.
Unfortunately, there are cast and script changes that mean that the returning version is weaker than it was before it went walkabout.
Taking on the role of beleaguered prime minister Jim Hacker is Robert Daws – who should, given his track record, be a safe pair of hands for this sort of verbal comedy. However, on the night we saw him, there were frequent moments of bumbling and tripping over words – most notably an inability to recall the name of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – that were clearly not scripted. I hope we caught him on an off night, because otherwise his Hacker is a likeable character.
Michael Simkins similarly doesn’t ever quite feel like he inhabits the suit of the ultimate mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby, but does an amiable enough job. And making the triumverate of besuited men, Clive Hayward’s likeable Bernard Woolley actually feels better – and closer to the Derek Fowlds version of the character, at least in the first TV series of Yes, Minister rather than its Downing Street successor.
Unfortunately, any goodwill I had towards the main cast dissipated with Emily Bruni as special advisor Claire Sutton. Overlooking all the opportunities for topical jokes Jay & Lynn could have made relating to government dependency on ‘Spads’, and recent headlines – from Hague’s room-sharing to Hunt’s aide and his conversations with BSkyB – Sutton could still have been a bit more of a thorn in the side of Sir Humphrey’s civil service. There’s a bit of that, especially in Act I, but with Humphrey’s absence for most of Act II the character loses some of that conflict. It doesn’t help that Bruni’s delivery is really painful at times – imagine Janice from Friends, by way of Roedean, and you’ll have some idea.
But the main fault with this tweaked production is that the moral dilemma Hacker and his aides are faced with has been watered down. Back when it was at the Gielgud, the PM had to decide whether securing a huge international deal was worth procuring a prostitute for a Middle Eastern ambassador – a decision made more complicated by the fact the ambassador wanted a girl who was younger than the British age of consent.
In this version, though, any implication of underage prostitution has been erased, although a whole conversation about how the age of consent varies between countries incongruously remains (along with references to an unseen character’s 15 year old daughter, which now makes no sense at all). Instead, the ambassador now wants three prostitutes instead of just one. As a result, there doesn’t feel like the same awkward moral dilemma. If you decide it’s okay to surreptitiously hire a hooker, hiring three doesn’t seem as big a jump as hiring an underage one.
I can quite understand why the writers may have chosen to move away from the child prostitution storyline, which never quite felt like it fit with the gentle comedy of bureaucracy that the original TV series concentrated on. But the clumsy execution of its excision means that it becomes hard to care about whole swathes of the characters’ dithering.
Yes, Prime Minister, thanks in part to its comedic heritage, still offers plenty to amuse. But it feels as if it’s outstayed its welcome just as it has found a location where it had the potential to offer a much-needed satiric light on the current government.
Readers can get tickets for Mon-Fri performances, and Saturday matinees, for £29.50 (normal price £46.50) by calling 0844 871 7632 and quoting promo code “Online £29.50”. Alternatively, use the promo code YESPM when booking online.