Sir Humphrey and his bumbling political puppet are back, three decades after Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn first penned the TV show that pioneered a generation of political satire. But can the magic of the original be captured in an Australian theatre? Curtain Call‘s Jason Whittaker and Cinetology critic Luke Buckmaster were at opening night …
Luke: Being a big fan of the TV shows — Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — I was a little concerned that this new stage production would be cursed by what I call the Get Smart Again syndrome. Meaning the creative talent have formed with a “get the band back together” strategy too late, when they’re over the hill, beyond the point of making something relevant. I needn’t have worried. The show’s transition to the stage is so good. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the material is darker and edgier in some ways, which makes it more contemporary. It’s changed for a more modern, more cynical audience, but still keeps its witty, distinctive raison d’être, and of course having the original writers was essential for that.
Were you a fan of the TV shows?
Jason: Perhaps it needed Don Adams, ar at least Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne back from the dead. I thought the performances were fairly obnoxious in playing to the back rows and deadening some of the subtlety of the original. Look, I was never really a fan but I saw enough episodes to appreciate its role in sending up government. It influenced much of what came after, and apparently Maggie Thatcher couldn’t get enough of it.
The rhythm in the writing was familiar. You could hear the TV show in it. But they overreached in updating it. If this was satire, it was assault with a blunt weapon. I know you don’t agree …
Luke: The rhythm was certainly familiar. Very familiar. I don’t agree that Yes, Prime Minister was about sending up government — broadly, perhaps, but it was always about sending up government processes, constructing and dismantling spin, a sharp, absurdist glimpse of back-room machinations and the contentious, often immaterial reality of policy making. If that’s splitting hairs, I think it’s a distinction worth making, especially given none of those facets have fundamentally changed with the new version and they are all so important to it success.
It was interesting, reading the production notes afterwards, that Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn rekindled their writing abilities so effortlessly. At least that’s what they said, and I believe them, given the snappy ebb and flow of the script, it’s constant, cascading circular conversations — by far my favourite part of the production. There is a seemingly effortless nature to the writing.
And what about Sir Humphrey’s loquacious rambles? His ludicrous flair for taking a simple question and crafting an incomprehensibly shifty, quasi-sophisticated response? Cammon, that was funny! It hasn’t dulled a jot, and while you’re right in the sense that Sir Nigel had rather large shoes to fill, I thought Philip Quast did an admirable job. And let’s remember that stage and cinema acting are such different mediums, so to be able to transfer that character across effectively is something commendable. In terms of the cast, I thought Caroline Craig was the weakest link in a new role as the PM’s special adviser. Was it just me, or was her English accent not quite convincing?
Jason: It was probably a little off, but she didn’t have much to work with. I think she was supposed to be Penny to the PM’s Inspector Gadget, the brains behind the man, cleaning up his messes and making him seem competent, but it ended up more Bond Girl — and I don’t think Craig (you’ll know her from Blue Heelers, but she’s done a bunch of stage work) was all that alluring. Certainly Quast — he’s been practicing his British brogue in Mary Poppins — got his tongue around some devilish monologues. And I thought John Lloyd Fillinghan as Bernard Woolley showed rare restraint and played that role well.
But I have to bring you back to the script. I think it played like it was written over a drunken weekend. In fact, 10 days I believe. I take the point, the show being about the maddening processes of government. There was humour, like the original, in the sheer futility of it. But they had the 24-hour media cycle and the relentless, omnipresent polling and focus group testing and lobbying and public relations spin to deal with, and they didn’t really have a crack. They wedged in a rather bizarre rant about climate change — I’m not really sure if it was pro-action or not — that went absolutely nowhere. And perhaps the key plot point — and I don’t think we should give it away — actually made me gape. I see a fair bit of theatre and I don’t do that very often. The blatant attempt to shock the thing into a contemporary space was just kind of offensive, I reckon. It certainly wasn’t funny.
Luke: Oh, lighten up! After all, with this key plot point, we’re not talking about something fiflthy, depraved and morally bankrupt, are we? Oh wait, yes we are. I agree that the production felt like it was written over a drunken weekend. But that is fitting given: a) the apparent, and, I would say, deceptive effortlessness of it; and b) the fact it did take place over a drunken weekend! At least the story did.
Jason: I can do filthy, depraved and morally bankrupt. Modern politics is nothing but. But if you’re going to cross the line it’s got to be worth it. I wasn’t shocked into laughter, I was just shocked. Maybe I’m a prude …
I’ll give you effortlessness. Tom Gutteridge the director, who’s pretty accomplished in Australia at state theatre companies, choreographed the whole thing quite well. It all went off without a hitch, just about, after just a handful of previews. And I think with a national tour ahead it will continue to improve and the actors will find more laughs in the material. I think it can only get better. And we should mention Shaun Gurton who designed the show. The Comedy Theatre was the perfect size for this sort of performance, and his set and lighting really put us square in the office. There was a voyeuristic quality to it which worked well.
But we still have to buy into the idea — in the vast realm of possibility — that this man might actually be the prime minister and these issues might actually come across his desk. I think there was an authenticity to the TV show that made it genuine satire rather than a broader comedy. I’m not sure this had much bite. It certainly didn’t have much wit, irresistible pratfalls and verbal athletics aside. And I’m surprised, Luke Buckmaster, that you went along with this.
Luke: “I can do filthy, depraved and morally bankrupt.” Do I have permission to put that on a bumper sticker? Stop being so prudish!
You’re right to mention Gurton’s excellent design and the set and lighting which complemented it. You really do feel like you’re in that office, smelling the oak of the PMs desk, the faint whiff of scotch, well-kept chesterfield and barely opened books. But most importantly, it feels like you’re there to soak up the silky verbose duckspeak. I could listen to these guys talk for hours! The running time flew by.
Mark Owen-Taylor was endearingly frazzled as the PM — I wanted to mention that before we wrap up. He reminded me of a sort of unkempt Tony Blair. Through the prism of absurdism, and satire, and with so many straight-up downright laughs, I don’t think you need to necessarily believe he is a man who might actually be PM. For one thing, PMs — or anybody involved in politics — are no where near as entertaining as him and his entourage.
If you’re right about the actors improving, and the joke quota increasing — and certainly that seems a logical expectation — than I will be more than happy, in fact, quite delighted, by the prospect of seeing this show again. Of course I went along with it, how could I not? These old boys have still “got it”. I had a great time.
Jason: Was that oak I was smelling or the waft of desperation in going back to the well on this? Look, fans need to see this. It is lovingly faithful, if nothing else. Which is perhaps the point: nothing really changes in politics, we only document it and interact with it differently. As if Sir Humphrey has been explaining his nonsensically convoluted theory of good governance this whole time and we’ve just tuned back in. They’ve dusted it off but the nostaliga wasn’t enough for me. A real missed opportunity.
Luke: I’m happy to tune back in any time when the quality of the writing is this good. The stage production is as fresh now as the TV show was in the ’80s. Fabulous fun.
The details: Yes, Prime Minister plays the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne until March 4 — tickets through Ticketmaster. The national tour moves to the Canberra Theatre (March 21), Sydney Theatre (April 4), Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide (May 23), Her Majesty’s Theatre in Perth (May 31), the Gold Coast Arts Centre (May 16) and the Playhouse in Brisbane (July 4) — dates and ticket information on the show website.