Yes, Prime Minister
Yes, Prime Minister’s reputation precedes itself. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the show before or not, most people are aware of its existence; it's an older British BBC comedy. It is, the producers inform us, “part of our everyday language”. While this may be true, it is only true to an extent and sadly this stage adaptation does little to dazzle the audience. That is not to say the production doesn’t try; there are many fine aspects of this show, but for the most part the script feels labored, underwhelming and unfortunately archaic. Rather than presenting an energetic, new, different or inspired twist on classic political satire Yes, Prime Minister rather feels like it is going through the motions. It offers apparently current jabs at the world at large – global warming, Rupert Murdoch, Berlusconi – but as a whole it feels a little flat and more nostalgic than engaging.
The set itself (design, Shaun Gurton) was an impressive recreation of what one imagines the office of the Prime Minister to look like; large rugs across the carpet, an imposing desk in the center, leather couches, tables, paintings etc. In fact the set was one of the standout features of the show with its moving picture frames that became a projector (used for wonderful comedic effect) and an enormous window across the upstage wall upon which the rain teemed down upon during the latter half of the first act. In addition to this were some four televisions scattered around the sides of the stage which became screens for a live BBC broadcast; it was fun to be able to watch the screens and the actors simultaneously.
On stage as the two leads were Philip Quast and Mark Owen-Taylor as Sir Humphrey and Prime Minister Jim Hacker respectively. Quast’s Sir Humphrey was, as to be expected, droll, and while I never found him overly captivating on the stage I must concede that the energy of the group lifted dramatically whenever he entered. It is a fun role to play; that of the antihero with whom the audience is often secretly siding, but I never felt as though Quast really earned our approval based on the performance itself, rather the audience needed to be already sold on the character before watching. I guess though, Quast was a fine Sir Humphrey and performed his obfuscating, prevaricating, mellifluous, if somewhat tangential, verbose and loquacious, soliloquies with effulgent, ardent and erudite alacrity. Kudos to him.
As the Prime Minister, Owen-Taylor was indeed the “cowardly lion”; ‘It’s the people’s will Humphrey, I’m their leader so I must follow them’. Yes his dialogue made fun of government, yes he confirmed that politics is the blind leading the blind, yes he demonstrated the way leaders muddle their way through situations. But to what end? While occasionally bordering on Basil Fawlty and with hints of Colin Firth (in Mama Mia, not the King’s Speech) Owen-Taylor kept the plot moving along but without ever finding the pace or necessary effortless humor which is so wonderful in the original. I draw parallels with the original only in so far as illustrating that the comedy comes from the haplessness of the Prime Minister and your inevitable sympathy for his plight; rather than here, where he reasons with paedophilia. Moreover in a comedy such as this, the laughs come from saying a line without asking for a laugh, and here it felt a little like the cast wanted the laughs, which doesn’t get laughs.
To round out the four leads were John Lloyd Fillingham and Caroline Craig as Bernard Woolley and Claire Sutton. The former was a wonderful actor who came close to stealing the show, whereas the latter provided little more than a dubious accent. Fillingham had a great sense of comedic timing and provided attention to detail – facial expressions, reactions and an outstanding ‘casual’ look. He played the caricature well without overdoing it and provided a great sounding board for the often absurd conversations going on around him. Craig was simply lackluster. There were moments throughout the show where the actors found their rhythm and a few phrases of dialogue which entertained bouncy banter, but they will need to work on that dramatically during the run to really nail the dialogue; which in itself would be little more than a mediocre episode of the original.
Director Tom Gutteridge uses the space well and conceptually has staged a great production. Innovations such as the moving picture frames and the live broadcast really help bring the show to life. Unfortunately though, the audience never quite gets to experience anything more than a standard British fare which caters for a specific demographic, and even then, not particularly well. Yes, Prime Minister does not translate well onto today’s stage and I don’t think it would without some pretty innovative playwriting. Moreover, these days Australian culture has moved on a little from BBC shows, cultural references and gags about Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, there will be those out there who enjoy this show, but that will be more out of sentimentality for the original rather than the rejuvenation of the stage production.
Would I recommend this to my friends? Probably not. Gutteridge’s show really does try to be fun, light-hearted and satirical, and when it finds its feet it is enjoyable to watch as most of the elements of good theatre are in place. Sadly, it didn’t quite come together.