Woy Woy Little Theatre have made an exciting start to their 2015 season by staging an adaptation of the classic British TV show, Yes, Prime Minister, the popular comedy of politics and the mysteries of the British Civil Service. I was a great fan of the show when it first aired in the eighties with its sharply observed satire, wickedly funny dialogue and lovable characters made memorable by the masterful performances of Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, and Derek Fowlds. The series shone a piercing light on the murky corners of the corridors of power and made them entertaining. Later the episodes were adapted and published in novel form and I bought the books as well. Although these followed the scripts faithfully, the narrative form allowed the authors to sharpen the focus and highlight subtle nuances that were easily missed while viewing the fast paced comedy show. The result was often even more illuminating and thought provoking.
The series aired for the last time in 1988 and writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn went their separate ways. They didn’t write together again until, more than twenty years later, they decided to collaborate on a modern revival of the show in the form of a stage play. It was first performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2010 and later went on to a successful run in London’s West end. The success may have surprised the writers. At the age of 81 and 74 respectively, Jay and Lynn doubtless expected this venture to be their swan song tribute to the original show – which perhaps encouraged them to push the envelope a little more than they might have done in the eighties – but the resulting script proved so popular it spawned a modern reboot of the television show, and a revised form of the play continues to tour the UK.*
The plot is based in the proven formula – Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, is forced to confront potential political disaster while attempting to thwart the devious machinations of his senior civil servants – but the writers have risen to the challenge of making the script up to date and relevant, setting the action against the background of topical issues of world recession, subprime mortgage crisis and climate change, while embracing technical advances such as Blackberries and Powerpoint. The writing is as intelligent, sharp and incisive as ever, but the play form has something in common with the novels in that its extended length allows the authors the luxury of time to develop a more complex plot and to confront issues more thoroughly.
The action takes place at Chequers, the PM’s official country residence, where Hacker is hosting a conference of European delegates and dignitaries. An offer of a ten trillion pound loan from Kumranistan promises to bolster both the failing economy and the sinking popularity of Hacker’s coalition government – provided Hacker can get agreement to a finance deal on a pipeline that involves every member of the European Council. However, Jim and his colleagues are shocked when they learn that the deal is dependent on satisfying the personal demands of Kumranistan’s Foreign Minister, and political dilemma quickly degenerates into moral crisis. The search for a solution courts controversy, examines deeply held assumptions, and explores just how far our political masters might be prepared to go to save face and cover their rears. The answers may shock you.
Woy Woy’s presentation is staged by the talented Christine Vale who has directed a number of excellent plays at the Peninsula, including the recent innovative and highly successful adaptation of The Thirty-nine Steps, and this is another quality production. The imaginative set creates immediate visual appeal with the simple elegance that is the hallmark of WWLT staging, and its attention to detail that instantly evokes the political history and status of Chequers and, throughout the play, both the humour and the tension are supported and enhanced by effective lighting, sound and technical devices. But the success of this play hinges on the performances, and they are never more crucial than when actors are called upon to recreate familiar characters. Christine has gathered a great cast from the Coast’s most capable performers. Several are Woy Woy regulars, and the principals are all well known and admired locally as well as having a string of national achievements to their credit. The three leads lovingly honour the original characters while imbuing the roles with their own presence. Andrew Thompson, as Jim Hacker, captures the swinging weather vane of the harassed P. M., from prevarication and panic in the face of certain disaster to smooth political spin and Churchillian pomp in the face of a camera. Mike Jeffries is delightful as the Machiavellian and manipulative Sir Humphrey Appleby, and is to be congratulated for his execution of the Cabinet Secretary’s characteristic verbal gymnastics, and Adam Young is adorable as the endearingly pedantic Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley, desperately trying to maintain a moral centre amidst a perfect storm of hypocrisy and expedience. The talented Kellie Martin gives an assured performance as the newly created character – Claire Sutton, Hacker’s shrewd, resourceful and opportunistic Special Policy Advisor – and excellent back up is also provided by Bob Farmer, Renee Chinn and Gordon Crawford in supporting roles. All of the cast are to be congratulated for meeting the demands of a uniquely challenging script and the whole production is a worthy tribute to the popular show, its writers and the original well loved cast.
Yes, Prime Minister continues at the Peninsula Theatre until March 15th but all matinee performances are already sold out and the few remaining seats are selling fast, so book quickly to avoid disappointment. Tickets are available from Woy Woy’s website at www.woywoylt.com.au or call 4344 4737.
*Biographical background drawn mainly from wikipedia.