There’s an advert on the back of the programme for the box set of the entire original series of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, which it turns out can be bought for £14.97 at the moment on Amazon. By comparison, a top price ticket for the new stage comedy that the creators of the original, Jonathan Lynn (who also directs) and Antony Jay, have fashioned costs £52.50, excluding booking fees.
My guest, a big fan of the television show, remarked during the interval, “It’s like watching widescreen TV”. All over the West End, of course, we can currently do the same thing as films like Billy Elliot, The Lion King and The 39 Steps have been vividly theatricalised, or others like Dirty Dancing and Sister Act have been feebly brought to the stage. Yes, Prime Minister falls somewhere between the two extremes – on the one hand, Jay and Lynn have at least gone to the trouble of giving Prime Minister Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, his endlessly obsequious but always darkly plotting cabinet secretary, a new plot to bring to life. But on the other, unlike the 30-minute format of the sitcom, it has to be stretched out to fill over two hours of stage traffic, and the strain shows.
There’s a slightly grim and even distasteful attempt to up the stakes by having the plot – which revolves around the PM’s attempts as to finesse a $10 trillion loan from Kumranistan in exchange for being allowed to build a pipeline through Europe – pivot on a requirement to solicit an underage female prostitute for the enjoyment of the unseen foreign minister of Kumranistan.
That sends the play not so much into satirising the business of government and civil service politics that the TV series so mercilessly highlighted as it does into the kind of throwback to the eighties sex comedies of Ray Cooney. That may make the play like a double dose of eighties nostalgia, but there’s less grit and far less wit in the uncomfortable result.
Nevertheless, David Haig does heroic work to bring this sweaty comedy to life, bringing his trademark high-energy performance of mounting panic to the PM, and Henry Goodman steps into the late Nigel Hawthorne’s shoes as Sir Humphrey with suavely calculated assurance. Jonathan Slinger, recently a fine Richard II and III for the RSC, demonstrates a smart talent for light comedy as Principal Private Secretary Bernard (Derek Fowlds in the TV original).