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Yes, Prime Minister

by on 17 March 2022

Couldn’t Possibly Say

Yes, Prime Minister

 by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn

Barnes Community Players at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 20th March

Review by Gill Martin

What a time to stage Yes, Prime Minister.

The world facing a third world war.  A maddened Russian despot invading and shelling its neighbour.

Crippling fuel bills as UK sanctions supplies from the former Soviet Union.

The PM cosying up to Saudi Arabia for its oil, despite its shady human rights record and a mass execution.

The homecoming of an innocent mother held hostage for six years in Iran — her ordeal, shall we say, not helped by the PM when he was a bungling Foreign Secretary.

Russian oligarchs worth billions finding their assets — including a rather famous London footie club — frozen as a sanction for their links with Putin.

And, oh yes, the small matter of a PM facing prosecution in the Pandemic Party-gate Scandal.

You couldn’t make it up.

Barnes Community Players didn’t have to.

All they had to do was mine the rich seam of the satirical sitcom that BBC2 brought to our TV screens in the Eighties with Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister.

Primed to enjoy this stage version by the same writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, I’d watched some old telly episodes on BBC4 the day before the play opened and was in a receptive mood.  But what had been slick, sharp and brisk comedy in thirty minute episodes was dragged out to two acts over two and a half hours with interval.  ‘Turgid script,’ grumbled one theatre goer on first night.   The auditorium was less busy by the second act.  You could hear the rustling sweet packet of the usherette.

Laughs out loud were few and far between as the actors battled to make the script zing.   Instead, there were merely knowing smiles of recognition at the timely plot lines of a country in crisis against a backdrop of spiralling debt, rising unemployment, civil unrest, global warming and the desperate need for a multi-trillion pound deal with an oil-rich country.  Not Saudi Arabia this time, but the fictional Kumranistan whose questionable morals has its Foreign Secretary demanding an orgy at Chequers to seal the deal.

PM Gemma Hacker (played by Marie Bushell) is pitted against Cabinet Secretary Sir   Humphrey Appleby (Ashley Brown) and Parliamentary Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Jamie Barker).  It’s an uneven battle.  Brown is larger than life with bristling moustache, overbearing manner, a Machiavellian figure with waistcoat straining over pink shirt and tie.   His worst fear concerning the PM: ‘she’ll start running the country.’  He has impossibly long lines, well delivered but too convoluted to pack punch and pace.

Bushell, silver-haired in pearls and patent, also slows the pace by trying to channel Margaret Thatcher — Yes, Prime Minister was her favourite programme — by copying her deliberate speaking style.   It felt like her batteries were running down.  Hopefully they’ll be replaced by Duracell for the rest of the run.

Young Barker, who could well find a role as a Prince Harry look-alike, is a likeable cove chipped from the same old school tie, Oxbridge classicist block.  But at least he has a moral compass of sorts against this politically incorrect set who talk glibly of Krauts, Dagos, Frogs, Micks and Polacks, illegal immigrants and the inferiority of other cultures.

The PM, heading for a nervous breakdown, admits: ‘I don’t talk to ordinary people, unless there’s an election.’  She is so out of touch with her electorate that she’s tempted to pimp her cook’s teenage daughter for sex with the Kumranistani Foreign Secretary — until the cook, an illegal immigrant, tries to flog her story to the Daily Mail.

What to do?  Summon the Ambassador.

Kumranistan Ambassador (Deesh Mariwala) is played with aplomb.   When summoned for a late-night meeting with the PM he is asked if he’s a Muslim.  The urbane character, in stylish dressing gown, counters:  ‘I’m a diplomat.  Harrow and Oxford.  I’m a Libra and member of the MCC.’

Moral considerations collide with the economic future of the nation.  How can this unsavoury crew, with Special Policy Adviser Claire Sutton (Susan Reoch) reconcile the two?

Political machinations, media manipulation and an appeal for divine intervention ensue amid conniving civil servants, a diplomatic crisis, Whitehall wheedling, plots and cover-ups, mutiny and back stabbing.

Just an everyday story of British politics, real and imagined.

Gill Martin, March 2022

Photography by Frank Power

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