Henry Goodman (Sir Humphrey) and David Haig (PM Jim Hacker) in Yes, Prime Minister. Photo by Manuel Harlan
For all its modern references to BlackBerrys and global warming, along with the arrival of a young, female SPAD (played with on-the-money bravado by Emily Joyce), fans of the show will be pleased to hear the characters are still called Sir Humphrey, Bernard and Jim Hacker. And with the original writers Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn behind this new version, a lot of the classic punning powerplay still pricks its target perfectly.
The action takes place at Chequers, where the PM (a rather too-shabby-to-be-in-charge David Haig) is attempting to sort out Europe’s financial crisis by doing an oil deal with Kumranistan. Cue lots of obvious jokes about Johnny Foreigner that had Friday night’s ageing audience roaring with laughter. (We don’t want to brag, but we were the youngest people in there by a long shot.) The play is then given a surreal twist which feels like it’s straight out of The Thick Of It: the Kumranistan Foreign Minister demands an underage prostitute for the evening, or the deal’s off.
Satire then dumbs down into farce as Sir Humphrey (an excellent Henry Goodman) tries to remain above it all; Bernard Woolley (Jonathan Slinger) wanders around worrying; and as Hacker, Haig goes frenetic, then manic, then frantic, and finally theistic, as the troupe on stage try to keep tensions mounting.
“I don’t know what else I don’t know! Do you know?” demands Hacker, at the end of his tether. Long pause. “I don’t know where to begin,” comes Sir Humphrey’s quiet reply.
Despite the fantastic performances on stage, Yes, Prime Minister sags in the second half. A lengthy debate with the Director General of the BBC feels like pure padding (and gives way to more obvious BBC bashing) and the reason for it – securing Hacker a live TV interview in the morning – superfluous. Wouldn’t the PM get that airtime anyway, without having to blackmail the Beeb?
Yes, Prime Minister on stage still contains the same wicked wordplay of the original, but in updating and transferring to the stage, something of the TV show’s brilliance is lost. And if, like us, you’re more attuned to The Thick of It ranting, twitter, and iPads rather than BlackBerrys, you might feel the “updated” tag hasn’t gone quite far enough.