Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yes, Prime Minister

Fawlty Towers comes to Downing Street – or more properly, to Checquers, the official country residence of the British Prime Minister.

Yes, Prime Minister, by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn is an updated stage version of their hit television series from the 1980s, Yes, Minister and then Yes, Prime Minister. And while it is not great theatre – it is not Shakespeare or even Oscar Wilde – it is great fun, with lots of laughs.

In the television series, Jim Hacker a back-bench Member of Parliament ends up as a Minister in a new coalition government; in the second part of the television series, he is elected Prime Minister. The play has Hacker, the manic and comic Robert Daws, surrounded by the same cast of characters, trying to hang on by his fingernails to his political career as he is buffeted by one crisis revelation after another.

The satire of unscrupulous, self-serving, often buffoon-like politicians and obfuscating, supercilious self-serving civil servants is timeless and is so in Yes, Prime Minister. However, the real hilarity is rooted in the very topical jokes – jokes that come a mile a minute: an unfolding Euro Zone monetary crisis (does a Euro Job call for Eurologist?), references to sexual proclivities and Berlusconi and Dominique Stauss Kahn, and the Director-General of the BBC (which one), etc. provide much of the humor. The United States comes in for its fair share (much to the delight of British audiences) of pointed jokes as well.

As the play opens, the obsequious civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby (the wonderful Michael Simkins) is confiding in the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, Bernard Wooley (Clive Hayward) that a deal is imminent to build a pipeline from ‘Kumranistan’ to the west that will not only deliver oil but billions of Euros to solve the European Union debt crisis. On learning this, Bernard points out that the deal likely means that England will have to adopt the Euro – something that is anathema to the Prime Minister and the British people. Sir Humphrey responds that the Prime Minister will never know until after the fact.

That is just the beginning of the complications that unfold over the course of the evening. The topper is that the Kumranistan Foreign Minister, who is spending the night at Checquers but whom we never see, wants to be provided with three call girls for an orgy. If they are not provided the oil deal is off.

On learning this, the Prime Minister is aghast, but asks how it might be accomplished - the Euro issue is off the table and he very much wants the pipeline. Sir Humphrey suggests that the Queen’s RAF Helicopter is in London and could be used to deliver the girls. The PM is even more aghast.

Much hand-wringing and discussion ensue with Hacker variously considering it (‘the girls could be considered patriots, giving it their all for their country’) and rolling on the floor in dismay.

The jokes and one-liners are very topical and as such limit that part of the scripts script's longevity, but it is that very topicality that makes the show so rollickingly funny.

The cast is quite good and the humor broad: not quite Benny Hill broad but definitely Monty Python or Beyond the Fringe.

The play was originally produced in 2010 and this the second time in the West
End. The great irony of this production is that it is at the Trafalgar Studio theatre just up the street from 10 Downing Street, home of the British PM.

The play has also prompted a revived and revised TV series with a new cast set to run in the UK in 2013.

Should we see that in the United States, as well? Yes, Prime Minister.

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