Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s stage adaptation of the TV sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister, at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, is well worth a visit. Having enjoyed the TV series I went with high expectations, and the production didn’t disappoint.
The classic combination of a controlling Sir Humphrey (Henry Goodman) with beautifully crafted lengthy speeches of confabulation, and the hapless, and increasingly desperate Jim Hacker (David Haig) produced some merciless satire on political life.
I am aware that memory is not necessarily a good arbiter of truth, but my distant memories of the TV series focus on the power struggle between the two men, with the Prime Minster losing out. It felt like there had been a slight shift of gear in this production. Sir Humphrey does ultimately triumph, but he feels vulnerable at times. It is true that there is a constant power struggle, but the play seems to be dominated by the awful dilemmas facing those in government, trying to balance personal ambition and spin, with the good of the country, while being forced to make impossible decisions in the early hours of the morning. The language provides some of the wit, but the plot confronts the characters with absurd choices that add substance and interest as well as agony as we watch them writhe in their dilemmas.
The central crux of the problem is that a foreign ambassador is only willing to supply a large loan to the country to provide economic security if the Prime Minister is willing to provide sexual favours for him at Chequers. Jim Hacker has to decide whether to lose the loan or try to smuggle an under-age hooker from Central London into Chequers using the Queen’s helicopter. The reasoning, the agony, and the increasing desperation is delightful to watch.
Despite enjoying the evening, I have some minor quibbles. First, it seemed a very male play. There is only one woman in the cast - the PM’s special adviser played by Emily Joyce. The other women are off-stage and fill the cliche roles of cook and hooker. The civil servants, the ambassador, the journalist, the BBC Chairman are all men. I did initially wonder if this was because the play was portraying political life, say 30 years ago. However, the play did have a feel of pretending to be modern - smart phones, Euro loans, global warming. Women are noticeable by their under-representation in the circle of power.
Secondly, I had mixed feelings about David Haig’s performance as Jim Hacker. On the one hand he did succeed in evoking sympathy from me for his appalling dilemmas; on the other hand he alienated me with his constant shouting. I presume that the Idiots’ Guide to Acting instructs practitioners to vary their volume. Haig soon reached maximum volume with little variation from that throughout the whole play. It detracted from his excellent interpretation of the role. It was annoyingly hard on the ears.
Thirdly, our experience of the theatre itself was far from pleasant. When we got to our seats in the Grand Circle small parts of the stage were not visible. However, far more alarming was the fact that we had to descend down some steep uneven stairs, on a wide aisle, on dark red carpet, in subdued lighting, with totally inadequate hand rails. It felt like an accident waiting to happen, and we were relieved that we survived without mishap. It didn’t feel safe, and it would have to be a pretty good production to make us want to go back to those particular seats. Any Health & Safety Inspectors out there, please take note.