Left – John Lloyd Fillingham, Mark Owen-Taylor and Philip Quast. Cover – John Lloyd Fillingham, Mark Owen-Taylor and Philip Quast. Photos – David Wyatt
The TV series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ of the 1980s have now been revived in a stage version Yes, Prime Minister, which opened in London in 2010 and has finally washed up on our shores. The writers of the original series, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, have updated the setting and issues to bring the concept up to the present day. High on the agenda are disputes over oil, petty dictatorships, illegal immigrants and global warming. Not to mention Britain’s determination to keep a safe distance from Europe.
The Comedy Theatre in Melbourne is a fitting venue for Yes, Prime Minister. The 1928 building has a fusty elegance and a charming but bumbling inefficiency. The curtain rises on an impressive set that remains the same throughout: a book-lined study at Chequers that owes its design to the ‘Sofa Government’ that is now in vogue. A large red sofa dominates the stage and provides the setting for the machinations between the Prime Minister and Whitehall that follow.
Much of the appeal lies in the same source of comedy as in the TV series: the tension between a Prime Minister, Jim Hacker (Mark Owen-Taylor), who is in office for a brief time and is determined to keep himself in power, and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Philip Quast), who serves the PM but has a lifetime position as a bureaucrat and considerably more political experience. Added to the mix is a new character, Special Policy Advisor, Claire Sutton (Caroline Craig), pragmatic and media-savvy, who threatens to have even greater influence over the PM.
The updating of the political process and the issues under debate provide plenty of laughs, but the undermining of Sir Humphrey’s power detracts from the principal strength of the TV series, where the civil servant always had the edge on Hacker. The comedy flags at the end of the first act, when an improbable minor plot concerning the sexual preferences of a visiting Eastern European Foreign Minister derails the major issue of oil agreements, and Sir Humphrey is left out of the argument, spreading his hands in surrender to the latest powers that be.
We must not forget the character of Bernard Woolley, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary, caught as ever between the PM and Sir Humphrey. John Lloyd Fillingham, who comes from England but seems to be here to stay in Australia, is a first-rate Bernard. Fillingham’s English background no doubt helps him nail the part, but what stands out in his performance is the physical aspect of his comedy. With his turned-out feet and oh-so-eager facial expressions, he times his movements and his dialogue to underline his changing allegiance from Hacker and Sir Humphrey. His Bernard is the highlight of the play.
The Australian cast do a convincing job of this quintessentially English play. Philip Quast as Sir Humphrey Appleby is the civil servant par excellence: composed, urbane and in charge. He provides a smooth foil for the irresolute Hacker and has some of the best lines in the play. He is particularly adept at delivering the long convoluted management-speak that Sir Humphrey is so fond of.
Owen-Taylor’s Hacker lacks definition at first, but the actor comes into his own when the play verges on farce, at which point he models his comedy on the antics of John Cleese. This idea may have come from the writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote this play as well as the original TV series. Jay worked with Cleese in the 1970s, setting up the management and sales training film company Video Arts.
Overall, the play is a little disappointing. Although the usual major things are at stake – power, prestige and ego, there is not enough at stake in the unfolding of the plot to provide consistent dramatic tension. The dialogue contains too much exposition and not enough punchy interchange between the characters. Where the TV close-ups allowed for subtlety and innuendo, the sprawling on sofas does not. And, even if in reality special advisors are threatening to oust the civil servants, comedy demands that Sir Humphrey has his say in every conversation and stirs the pot with his bureaucratic savvy. A tighter approach to the writing and the acting would have given more depth to the comedy, instead of relying for laughs on the old lines from the TV series, current issues and John Cleese impersonations.
Yes, Prime Minister
by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Venue: Comedy Theatre | 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne
Dates: Jan 31 – March 4, 2012
Times: Tuesday 6:30pm, Wednesday – Saturday at 7:30pm
Matinees: Wednesday 1pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100
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