There are two main challenges that Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn face in reviving and updating their classic television sitcom for the stage. The first is that anybody who knows the original series will have fond memories of Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds in the central roles of Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley. The second is that, in the intervening years, Westminster has changed, with power flowing more and more to the press secretary, as The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker so ably demonstrates.
The former problem is overcome by treating the characters as eminently recastable. Rather than going for actors that emulate the performances that have gone before, the producers have chosen actors who can take the characters off the scripted page and construct completely new interpretations. David Haig’s Hacker is a more hyperactive, physical Prime Minister than Eddington would, or could, ever be. And, as a result, he probably works better on stage, too.
Similarly, Jonathan Slinger’s Bernard Woolley is much more of a naif than Fowlds’. They share the sense of relentless, if not pointless, optimism, but that’s about it.
Sir Humphrey, though, is perhaps the character that remains the least changed. While Henry Goodman does his best to banish thoughts of Hawthorne’s portrayal, the character itself is defined by his rigidity within the boundaries of his role, so it’s perhaps inevitable that for all the 21st century trappings, Sir Humphrey remains essentially exactly as he was in the 1980s – indeed, as he probably would have been at any point in the last several hundred years.
As for the second problem – that Whitehall life has moved on – that’s partly dealt with by relocating the action to the PM’s country residence, Chequers. In the comparative isolation away from Downing Street, all oak panels and bookcases, there is a sense of timelessness – despite the flat screen TVs and 24 hour news – that works in the production’s favour.
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.
Less successful is the supporting cast. Emily Joyce’s policy advisor is hammily over-played in the first act, although had calmed down somewhat in the second, while Sam Dastor’s Kumranistan Ambassador never quite works. William Chubb’s brief appearance as the Director General of the BBC works better in the brief scene he’s given.
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.
That said, though, we laughed heartily throughout and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.