Theatre spin-off is in prime form

Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey in Yes Prime Minister at Nottingham's Theatre Royal from March 21-26 2011
Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey in Yes Prime Minister at Nottingham's Theatre Royal from March 21-26 2011

CLASSIC comedy endures while lesser fare dates and Yes Minister/Prime Minister is of one with Fawlty Towers and the like in this field.

The episode in which Jim Hacker vows to protect the British sausage from Euro bureaucracy is such a gem and now Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay’s TV series has transferred to the stage, to great critical and public acclaim.

Yes, Prime Minister has reached Nottingham’s Theatre Royal on its national tour, with Simon Williams as cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and Richard McCabe as Prime Minister Jim Hacker, the TV roles made famous by Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington. They face a country in financial meltdown in a world of spin, BlackBerrys and sexed-up dossiers. But a prospect of salvation is offered by an oil pipeline treaty with Kumranistan, a dodgy deal with a dodgy partner if ever there was one.

Toss in a hung Parliament, battles with the BBC and the Daily Mail and European legislation and it’s easy to see why Hacker – the action takes place during a weekend at Chequers, his country home – has more than enough on his plate.

So how does an icon of TV sitcom fare on stage, with half-an-hour of tightly packed small screen action now absorbing two hours? Things have moved on since the 1980s and Sir Humphrey’s role is less dominant than of old. Blame Thatcher for that. Some of the civil service’s teeth were drawn during her regime and today’s presidential-style Prime Ministers have the support of political special policy advisers, with Charlotte Lucas giving a superb performance as Claire Sutton in this part.

Thus the modern Sir Humphrey appears almost bewildered at times by his inability to control events, lapsing into lengthy monologues of obfuscation. It is not giving anything away to say that, as satire descends into farce during the second half and Jim is on the point of resignation, it is Sir Humphrey who pulls the fat out of the fire.

It is to the credit of the cast that no attempt is made to impersonate their TV forebears and here Richard McCabe is splendid as a PM who becomes increasingly more demented. Chris Larkin, as Bernard Woolley, the civil service principal private secretary, is the meat in the sandwich as he strives to please two masters. Jonathan Coote as the director general of the BBC and Kevork Malikyan as the Kumranistan ambassador (Harrow, a Blue at Oxford and the MCC) also excel.