“Yes Prime Minister” Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s new play, on tour after a West End run, is a fresh look at their well loved TV characters from Yes Minister. It’s an odd experience to see characters who you know well played by actors who are completely different to the originals yet still have the same names and behave in much the same way, like seeing something familiar through a distorting lens. The theatre was full, mostly older people who were keen to laugh a little too quickly at every joke and clever insinuation and show that they were in the know. They dutifully applauded Sir Humphrey’s two set piece long speeches, one in each half, and even talked out loud about what they were seeing as they watched. A bit late in the day they were enjoying seeing their memories (or their DVD box set) come to life in front of them. It was very funny indeed, nicely played and cleverly timed and I don’t suppose for a moment that they will have gone home disappointed. They had been given exactly what they were promised delivered with style and confidence by a very experienced cast.
I missed Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey very much (that was a one in a million television performance) and there was an edge to the character which has to be there which I thought that Simon Williams missed. Having said that he is a very different actor of course and needed to do something new. Richard McCabe and Chris Larkin had an easier time recreating Jim Hacker and Bernard Wooley. The main update was the introduction of a new character, Claire Sutton, a special policy advisor. This is a new element in modern day politics which has changed the old dynamic between the civil service and Westminster considerably. She was very well played by Charlotte Lucas and it was a relief to be given someone new to watch, taking us away from our old memories and comparisons. It did add a lot but it also diluted the sense that we were watching a duel going on between Hacker and Sir Humphrey, which was one of the main pleasures of the original.
For the new play the old characters have been placed in the present day, during a crisis ridden weekend at Chequers during a European conference. The plot is ridiculous (not necessarily a problem in a farce) involving an oil pipeline, an ambassador from Kumranistan, the director general of the BBC, and a European financial crisis which can only be solved by giving in to the demands of one of the delegates for an underage schoolgirl who will be prepared to engage in some “horizontal diplomacy”. None of it needs to be believable, and it isn’t. It is merely a vehicle for a long succession of witty one liners ( “I can’t let the Americans run a European conference Humphrey. Look at the map!”) and set piece comedic situations. I particularly liked the scene where Bernard was on the phone being given a sequence of numbered prearranged responses to trot out in order to fend off the journalist on the other end.
The set is a good match for the play, and sat very well in the opulent surroundings of Leeds Grand theatre. It is a perfect recreation of a room at chequers, the kind of stylish realism that used to be commonplace, beautifully lit and dressed. Back in the day it might well have got a round of applause when the curtain went up.
I have nothing bad to say about this production at all. Genuinely funny plays in the theatre are not to be sniffed at as they turn up surprisingly rarely. Yes Prime Minister delivers exactly what it promises to a full house who arrive knowing exactly what they expect to see and they are delighted when they get it. I’m just not sure that they needed to see it in the theatre. It doesn’t really add much. It would have been just as much fun as a Sunday night treat on television, and there’s a part of me that regrets the fact that a whole audience went home satisfied without being shown just how unique and particular theatre can be.