“Do we have to deal with this tonight?”
When it was first announced that Yes Prime Minister would be returning to the London stage, the question ‘who hasn’t seen it yet?!’ was not unreasonably raised. (The answer, of course, was me, presumably amongst others.) Since opening in Chichester in 2010, it has played the West End twice and toured the UK twice but in shaky economic times, exacerbated by the unknown quantity of how the Olympics will actually affect audiences, the Trafalgar Studios have plumped for a return for this safe banker, which is currently booking til the 12th January 2013.
And safe it is. An update of the classic TV programme by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the pair crafted a contemporaneous version of their story which captures the main themes of ministerial ineptitude and the enduring survival and influence of the Civil Service. PM Jim Hacker is sequestered at Chequers in the midst of a conference and surrounded by gloomy news. When a chink of light appears in the form of a lucrative oil deal, hopes are raised but the offer comes with an enormous string attached and Hacker and his team are forced to balance ethics and morals with the potential deal of a lifetime.
The first half was amiable enough, ambling along with an easy humour and no little insight into the often uneasy relations between 10 Downing Street and Whitehall. Robert Daws’ good-publicity-hungry PM is an amusingly drawn political animal, buttressed by a sharp Emily Bruni as laconic special policy advisor Claire and a plaintive Clve Hayward as Bernard, his principal private secretary. And his face-offs with the thoroughly Establishment-heavy Sir Humphrey are lent a certain charge by Michael Simkins’ droll delivery.
But the problem, and for me it was a considerable problem, lies in its datedness- the world, and particularly the world of political satire has moved on considerably. There was no lingering sense of affection for the TV show on my part as I’ve never seen it and played no part for me and so I was appreciating the comedy on its own merits, and it just isn’t really funny enough, nor daringly biting enough in its expose of politics.
In the real world, the House of Commons churns out enough scandal and inanity of its own accord, as brilliantly dramatised in A Walk On Part (a better bet for a political comedy in all honesty as it has now reopened at the Arts Theatre). And sharper, more modern political comedy, like that of Armando Iannucci, has supplanted it elsewhere. Jay and Lynn have given the play a cosmetic updating to include references to hacking and the Greek economy but the issues lie deeper, at its tame heart.
Talking to a friend who had seen it before, there’s been a significant rewrite with regards to the central shocking request which he thought perhaps neutered the edge of the play a little, but I’m not so sure that would have made so much of a difference to me. Yes Prime Minister is what it is, akin to early evening television on a Sunday, moderately entertaining and largely inoffensive but ending up rather uninspired against both real life and other contemporary political comedies.