A new session for the PM

Yes, Prime Minister

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

***

Yes, Minister is a rarity, a television catchphrase which entered into popular parlance.

A code, implying  the reverse of its overt meaning. The sitcom, Yes, Minister, 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?

 Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Michael Fenton Stevens, seated), with Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Crispin Redman)

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  fresh challenges in the age of the 24 hour news cycle.

Dramatically, the characters have evolved, Sir Humphrey's pompousness is  tinged with corruption, Bernard's functionary role is 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 form part of the action giving Hacker fresh headaches to contend with, and plenty of new laughs. To 11-05-13.

Gary Longden 

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