Yes, Prime Minister

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

I went to see Yes, Prime Minister at the Gielgud Theatre in London on the 18th September.  It’s a gentle re-imagining of the original rather than a rerun with a different cast, it’s not as radical in its re-imagining  as say Battlestar Galactica (thankfully Bernard hasn’t done a Starbuck).  However the changes aren’t just the cosmetic inclusion of a flat screen TV and an array of BlackBerrys.  A loud ringtone cleverly introduces the first act before any of the cast make an appearance.  The BlackBerry jokes are there but fortunately the play doesn’t become obsessed with phones or other modern innovations.

The transition to theatre has changed Yes, Prime Minister.   Where the original TV episodes were 30 minute, multiple set productions this is two and a bit hours minus an interval and all takes place in a one room set.  With the extra time and limitations of the stage the plot leans closer to farce but doesn’t descend into it.  The satirical edge of the original is still there but either time has softened its bite a little or that is just the effect of the satires that have evolved from it in the twenty years since the last, first, run of the TV incarnation.

It takes a little time to get used to David Haig, Henry Goodman and Jonathan Slinger in the essential three roles.  Sir Humphrey has a nice pair of his trademark extended, convoluted and entirely content-free monologue responses to Hacker’s questions.  Fortunately they don’t slip into imitation and play them as original, modern characters.  There is a little of Blair in the new Hacker and has a few moments of channeling Churchill.  He manages to put Sir Humphrey on the back foot by turning the tables on him a few times.

One of the biggest changes in a way is a spin doctor is now included in the mix.  Frank Weisel aka the Weasal, Hackers political advisor, was quickly shuffled off into the bowels of a distant building in Yes, Minister.  Dorothy Wainright in Yes, Prime Minister was often smarter than Hacker but often acted as a foil to Sir Humprey so Bernard wasn’t always having to reveal Sir Humphrey’s schemes to Hacker.  Claire Sutton, Special Policy Advisor, feels more integrated.  She can and does put a spanner into Humphrey’s scheming but she is more than capable of causing a little chaos all by herself.

Of the big three Bernard is the most changed.  He barely mixes a metaphor and with the introduction and frequent presence of Claire Sutton he has less opportunity to have moments of confidence with Jim or Sir Humphrey.  I sort of miss Bernard as he was always my favourite character in the TV series.  He does have his moments though.

The Chequers set is exquisite and worked beautifully.  If I had my “architecture enthusiast” hat on I’d question the layout of Chequers having a bay window next to a door leading into a corridor.  With my “theatre isn’t reality it’s a reflection in a mirror that can get away with things because its theatre hat on” I’ll just enjoy it.  I’ll be back to the bay windows in a paragraph…

I think it’s a sad reflection on my leaning towards lighting design rather than audio that I can’t really comment on the sound side of the production.  The use of Elgar and other inspiring British orchestral music before the play starts works well to set the mood.  The sound effects worked at the right time.  I could hear what the actors were saying (and they paused during the longest laughs and applause or we’d have been lost).  The sound worked and I didn’t notice anything wrong with it.

The lighting largely consisted of a stage wash with some light fittings included in the set.  There were however a few moments of grand theatricality that were lit beautifully.  The set includes two large bay windows – one facing the audience and one angled from stage right.  The back window especially was used beautifully through a combination of a beautifully painted scenic cloth of a tree and lighting effects to create drama but also to subtly inform the audience of the time of day.

Where the TV episodes could cram a few levels of complication on top of each other the longer format allows more development with more elements dropped in.  There is some nice simple foreshadowing that made no real attempt to hide in plain sight but which clearly caught some of the audience unawares.  Many of the originals favourite political themes are still there – Europe, The BBC, the civil service and a fictional oil rich country.

I’m wondering if there isn’t a book to be written on the symbolic use of torrential rainfall in political dramas. The West Wing uses it several times and now the stage version of Yes, Prime Minister too.  I wish I was more up on my Shakespeare to know if it can all be blamed on his works.

At least from where I was sitting it was a full house, certainly full enough that I only just got served at the bar during the intermission and had to clutch a plastic cup of ice through the second half.  The audience was a broader mix than I expected.  There were a reasonable number of thirty somethings and some late teenagers with parents along with groups of older women and groups of older couples.  Given the price of the tickets and the age and nature of the original show I’m not surprised the audience wasn’t younger.  However I think this is a play that could be seen and enjoyed without any knowledge of the original.

One  word of advice – the Gielgud seems to be quite a warm theatre with a full house.  I was glad the good late September weather meant I didn’t need to wrap up against the elements.  If you have to wrap up make sure you can easily de-layer.

I’ve left the most important thing till last.  Is it funny?

After all this is a comedy based on one of the greatest and most original situation comedy series ever produced.

Thankfully the answer is a most definite yes.  It’s really funny.  It’s silly funny without anyone’s trousers falling down.  Essentially it’s clever funny too.  It manages to be current but at the same time to remain in that slightly parallel Yes, Minister universe to our own where Hacker, friends, enemies, Bernard and Sir Humphrey think they’re in charge.

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