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A CurtainUp London London Review
Yes Prime Minister

I don't talk to ordinary people unless there's an election going on. — Prime Minister
Yes Prime Minister
David Haig as Jim Hacker
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The hit BBC television situation comedy series Yes Minister and its successor Yes Prime Minister by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lyn dominated 1980s television political comedy. Now a stage version has come from Chichester Festival Theatre to the West End stage at the Gielgud. It is a well honed formula — bright, vain civil servant professional manipulates vain, self regarding, less intelligent prime minister.

The crisis which emerges, while the Prime Minister's entourage is staying at his country seat Chequers, comes when the Foreign Minister of an obscure nation with important reserves of oil and crucial to the future of European Union demands the services of an under age prostitute. Try as they might, the Prime Minister's advisers can see no way around the problem. Our Prime Minister has a tiny majority and so is vulnerable to any swing of public opinion against him.

Like the original series, the joy in this play is in the characterisation of the main members of the Prime Ministerial inner circle. There is Bernard Woolley (the redoubtable Jonathan Slinger) an Oxford classicist taken to pronouncing in Latin, which lesser creatures like the Prime Minister don't understand. Bernard's qualities are a naive honesty without political guile and a pedantic insistence on getting things exactly right to an almost Asperger's degree. Sir Humphrey Appleby (Henry Goodman) is a dapper, preening career civil servant. Also an Oxford man, he is very intelligent and very canny. David Haig's Prime Minister of indeterminate party, Jim Hacker is an expedient politician through and through. David Haig has this expert blustering persona. He shakes his head and his voice vibrates with emphasis and resonance. He has all the delivery skills of a great orator providing someone else writes the speeches for him.

There are some up to date political jokes in these nervous days of the first British coalition government for more than half a century. The speech about the privileged position and perceived abuses of the BBC even received a round of consenting applause from the audience as if this is real politics! There is some topical discussion of memoirs and Clare (Emily Joyce) Special Policy Advisor tells us that "Memoirs are not the truth: they are the case for the defence." I really liked the manual of pre-prepared proforma answers for questions from journalists like a Chinese Take Away Menu, Number Two, Number Five, Number Seven, with all those meaningless soundbites which sound good but mean nothing. Both the Prime Minister and his Special Policy Advisor mouthed the stock phrases as Bernard was chosen to relay them to the press over the telephone.

The only effective weapon the Prime Minister has against Sir Humphrey is the acceleration of the proposed Civil Service Act which would limit the privileges of these Whitehall mandarins and government servants, and worse, in Sir Humphrey's eyes, attack their very generous, non-contributory index linked pension scheme. Cue for Sir Humphrey to have a fit of apoplexy. Of course Sir Humphrey can bamboozle, double speak and confuse with words. Some of his longer intricate speeches are delivered in masterly fashion but have us groaning for him to stop such is the complexity of his message. We lost the thread ages ago.

Simon Higlett's fine country house set is impressive, spacious and finely detailed with expensive furniture. The Special Advisor first makes her entrance through a door hidden in the floor to ceiling bookshelves and we wonder if the secret door signifies some sexual liaison but no! These characters find power more sexy than sex.

The performances will please, especially that of David Haig's affable Prime Minister, and there is plenty of wit in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's savvy script. At two hours twenty I was conscious that the original series had episodes of only half an hour but this will be a popular show with British audiences maybe in spite of delivering no surprises. There is much wit and truism observations of the political animals which will make you smile if not laugh out loud.

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Yes Prime Minister
Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Starring: David Haig, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Slinger
With: Emily Joyce, Sam Dastor, William Chubb, Tim Wallers, Leighton Vickers
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Andrea J Cox
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5130
Booking to 15th January 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th September 2010 performance at the Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1V 8AR (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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