If you go to the show anticipating a replica of the popular 1980s TV series, then you may very well be disappointed. Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn drag the play into it’s contemporary coalition loving, daily news harassing, cabinet backstabbing context, with Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, kicking and screaming all the way.
In his new dominant Presidential role, Hacker seems a bit more like a Basil Fawlty figure as he spins around in the despair of his Chequers crisis. Michael F Stevens brilliantly conveys the hopelessness of his situation: he rants, he screams, he pulls out his hair, whilst leaning on his team of advisers. It is this physicality that removes it from it’s screen equivalent: probably owing to the demands of it’s medium, the theatre performance lacks the gentle nuances of the screen and instead falls into the rapture of farce.
This is most poignant in the second half, which really picks up the pace and dispels into total chaos. The myriad of impending disasters range from the aggressive BBC reporting, to the bickering of a disloyal cabinet, to the failing economy and the $10 billion dollars resting on the compliance of some Asian foreign secretary’s outlandish request for an orgy. We have the incessant interruptions of ringing phones and unwanted visitors that provide constant excitement and momentum.
There is a stale interruption of this action with a very still, very strange evocation of religious empathy when Hacker, Bernard (his private secretary) and his sexy policy advisor, kneel to ask for God’s guidance. This lull, although brief, leaves a bitter flavour of resentment towards the blurring of religion and state, which the Americans are accused of and the British Prime Minister is sourly linked. Here the handling seems at best rough and distracts us from the subtlety of the verbal sparring throughout, as well as detracts from the farce, which as we know, relies most heavily on speed.
Sir Humphrey certainly attends to the need for speed. Crispin Redman’s quality to reel off obfuscatory soliloquies in a single, well drawn breath is mesmerising and he is able to invest the character with his previously endowed sly and devious nature. Yet he certainly is not the puppeteer we know from the screen, allowing the characters to be more equally weighted.
The play creates a double mirror. We watch the Government achieve nothing in a verbose, political manner and in turn the play gains nothing from all the confusion and action of the show. Instead the conclusion takes an unexpected turn, which is given very little substance. We as the audience seemed to be fobbed off just like the population who Harker presides over. What is troubling is that it is a population and a world that we recognise all to clearly.
At Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guilford until February 16th
*Apologies for mixing up the cast names. Michael and Crispin, please forgive me! All set right now.