By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
I’m not going to make any jokes about 2016 and 2017 being, shall we say, unusual years, politically. Such jokes have been done to death, resurrected, then done to death all over again. Refreshingly, Yes, Prime Minister includes no heavy-handed references to the events of either year, though that is because the stage play was first performed in 2011. Nevertheless, Yes, Prime Minister is no less relevant to the first buds of 2018; with its funny and intelligent study of such serious themes as utilitarianism, nationhood, cultural relativism, hypocrisy, the role of emotion in politics and the nature of power. In the light of #MeToo and the allegations made against the famous and powerful, this play actually takes on a new and darker resonance, as its increasingly outlandish plot is markedly darker and more sordid than the original TV series.
Sir Humphrey Appleby is such an iconic character within an already iconic series, that whoever plays Humphrey faces the real risk of being a disappointment if their performance is anything less than stellar. The shadow of Sir Nigel Hawthorne looms large over the part. Fortunately, Guy Matthews was more than up to the task, earning a round of applause for his flawless delivery of Humphrey’s famously verbose and rapid-fire speeches. Matthews’ comic expression reached the point where he could win a laugh just by the way in which he shrugged his shoulders. Both Matthews and Jon Derrick (who played the jittery pedant Bernard Woolley with aplomb) used pace to its full potential, speeding up for comic effect, but also slowing down to exaggerated levels perfectly. The two characters form a great dynamic with Jim Hacker, the eponymous Prime Minister (played by Zach Pierce). I wonder how many gallons of Lucozade were required for Pierce to sustain his high-energy performance, particularly in the second act, when he shouts until his face turns red. Hacker and Humphrey argue like an old married couple, with Bernard as their awkward son.
The supporting cast gave performances markedly briefer, but no less enjoyable. Will Robinson was highly entertaining as the Kumranistani Ambassador, his ‘r’s rolling like billiard balls. Jessy Roberts as the Director General of the BBC played nicely off of the main characters and had the clearest diction of all the cast. The briefest appearance was made by Danni Boxall as Sally Chesters, who had to wait patiently until the play was almost over before it was her scene. Boxall’s impression of a BBC journalist was excellent, down to the timbre and inflection of her delivery.
A word of caution: this play is two and a half hours long, including a fifteen-minute interval. Every minute of the play demands your full attention and concentration as the plot moves rapidly, leaving no time to reflect on what you’ve just seen. It’s not relaxing viewing, as I discovered first-hand. But whether you’ve seen the TV series or not: go watch the play tonight or tomorrow night. If you have seen the TV series, this production is a loving homage with all the classic running gags. If you have not seen the TV series, this production is a potted version of what made it iconic. Hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to check it out for yourself.