“Yes, Minister” is a rarity, a television catchphrase which entered into popular parlance. A code, implying the reverse of its overt meaning. The sitcom, which morphed into “Yes Prime Minister”, was essential viewing in its heyday, the Thatcherite eighties. It became a touchstone for an era, brilliantly written, fiendishly well informed, and created so authentically that the line between fact and comic farce was often uncertain.. Was Government actually like this? It probably was. Great writing transcends its immediate subject and speaks more broadly to its audience. “Yes, Prime Minister “ did just that. Like Spitting Image, Yes Minister ,and then Yes Prime Minister, became so close to perceived reality, a reality it in part helped to create, that classic status followed.
A contemporary staging offers advantages, and disadvantages. On the plus side, the original scenes were invariably interior office locations, ideal for the stage. The subsequent era of spin doctors, and Tony Blair, also raises new fertile satirical material. On the downside, Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey, and Derek Fowlds as Bernard ,were such definitive characterisations that the task of playing them is a daunting one, and the original was embedded in a time and place. How well would it travel into the 21st century?
This adaptation by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn is a contemporary rewrite, and modern fashion for reshaping familiar characters, such as in Doctor Who and the Batman series, means that the new cast do not have to attempt to mimic their illustrious forbears to win the audience’s favour. An entirely new character, a glamorous special advisor Claire Sutton,(Indra Ove) , helps to breathe freshness into the production in which Hacker (Michael Fenton Stevens), Sir Humphrey (Crispin Redman) and Bernard (Michael Matus) face challenges now familiar to us on a 24 hour news cycle.
The role of Claire Sutton feels awkward in this production. I am unsure as to whether this is driven by the script , or Indra Ove’s performance which is often strident, matches the tone of the male characters, providing less light and shade than the character should offer. Her supine acceptance of the proposal that they should be providing prostitutes for a foreign dignitary seems unconvincing.
Dramatically, the characters have evolved, Sir Humphrey’s pompousness is now tinged with corruption, Bernard’s functionary role is now more bumbling, Jim Hacker’ s good intentions have a cynicism about them, giving it a Blairite twist . Physically, the set is lavish and detailed, a credit to Designer Simon Hignett with Director Jonathan Lynn imaginatively using onstage cameras to film and broadcast for the play’s climax.
A steadfastly middle aged audience had clearly come for a reprise of the themes of the original television series, they were not disappointed. Michael Fenton Steven’s interpretation of Jim Hacker had shades of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, with plenty of physical comedy culminating in him hiding under a table in the face of a mountain of calamity.
The updated script ensured that this was no nostalgia show whilst simultaneously offering enough familiarity for the audience to feel at home. The Coalition, Global Warming and the Euro all join the topical mix but too often they jar, as though they have been shoehorned in. Each half runs to an hour, twice the length of an original episode. As a consequence, the tightness and pace of the television episodes are lost. Crispin Redman is excellent as Sir Humphrey, but Michael Fenton Steven’s Hacker lacks charm. As I left the theatre I felt that I had consumed something reheated, rather than freshly cooked.
“Yes, Prime Minister” runs from Tuesday 7th to Saturday 11th May at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.