I could hardly say no [by Matt Baker]
Originating from the BBC series, which ran between 1980 and 1984, and from 1986-88, writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have reunited to update and adapt their BAFTA winning television series Yes, Prime Minister to the stage. Premiering at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne 2012, the Australian production opened last night at Auckland’s Civic Theatre to a diversely aged audience. I note this purely because while there would have been those in the audience who had seen the series, and those who had not, this is an easily accessible production of high calibre.
The play’s political content, wrapped in its comedic contextual shroud, constructs a rather simple dramatic plot, but the snowball effect allows for a huge amount of ground to be covered, from oil routes and global warming, to Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. The audience orientated theatrical presentation was slightly jarring at first, but Tom Gutteridge’s direction deftly integrates this with the overall staging of the play, so that it quickly becomes a natural part of both movement and style.
Considering Sir Humphrey Appleby’s motives, Robert Grubb completely charms the audience as the Cabinet Secretary. Grubb’s musical and operatic experience is evident in his vocal work, especially in Sir Humphrey’s reputable ‘big speeches’, the first of which receives a duly deserved round of applause. As Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, Russell Fletcher’s opening night nerves serve him well, but his staccato cadence seems ill fitting at times with the Socttish accent.
Mark Owen-Taylor expertly balances both the right amount of arrogance and ignorance as Prime Minister Jim Hacker, without detaching himself from the audience by becoming too hubristic or frivolous respectively. There is a slightly clownish flair in his limbs, but it’s just enough to prevent one from interpreting it as irreverence. His gradual deterioration is perfectly pitched, so that his initial aloofness and eventual reversion to childlike behaviour are both wholly acceptable.
Caroline Craig is slightly too physically bound as Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton. Her vocal twang also hits the ear rather falsely, but is pulled back after the first scene. Craig works best when, having stood her own against Sir Humphrey, allows her character to succumb to the odd effeminately giddy reactions. David Aston changes the tone as The Kumranistan Ambassador, providing the right amount of punch to drive his scenes and consequently serving the action of the play as a whole.
Graham McGuffie’s set design is meticulously detailed and hints towards the grandeur of Chequers Court with simple yet effective features such as outside foliage and deep hallways. The humour of the play is, expectedly, very British, and the jokes read like a well-linked series of political cartoons. It is full of brilliant one-liners. Consequently, a lot of moments are punctuated and delivered in a particular way that is very self-aware. It seems a homage to the television origins of the material, where comedy happens in the mid and wide shots, and it’s a very specific style that one will simply either accept or not. Either way, unlike the nation over which this fictional government presides, this production is in very capable hands.
Yes, Prime Minister is produced by Andrew Guild, Simon Bryce, and Tim Woods in association with YPM (International) Ltd and plays at The Civic until July 13. Details see The Edge