No, Prime Minister

In normal circumstances, it is The Book Hammer’s sacred duty to slag off books – especially good ones that don’t deserve it. However, this week I am making an exception and slagging off a play – a bad one.

 Back in the 80s, discerning TV audiences were delighted by Yes, Minister and subsequently, Yes, Prime Minister featuring the hilarious antics of Minister Jim Hacker and his civil servants: the machiavellian Sir Humphrey and the egregious Bernard Woolley. It was that rarest of popular TV shows – a scripted comedy that dared to rejoice in its intelligence and wit. We have rarely seen its equal.

 Skip forward three decades and, like a geriatric rock star on a superannuation tour, Yes, Prime Minister limps onto the Sydney Theatre stage and collapses in less time than it takes to give a dead horse 20 lashes.

 Lame, ham-fisted and obviously rushed (it felt like a first draft), I couldn’t believe I was watching the work of the celebrated Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay who had sparkled so in the 80s. I was prepared for the fact that the actors would be different (only one of the main three is still alive) but they weren’t to blame. Mark Owen-Taylor, who played the Prime Minister, was very good and even seemed to channel the late Paul Eddington at times. John Lloyd Fillingham also, playing Bernard, was quite good and Sir Humphrey, played by Philip Quast, while nothing like Nigel Hawthorn did his best with the material.

 But the material stank.

 Free comedy tip to Lynn and Jay: paedophilia is not funny. A Prime Minister and civil servants conspiring to obtain a minor for the purposes of prostitution to entice an advantage from a foreign potentate is a long stretch for comedy – even longer than this sentence! Yet that was the central dramatic device, and when it was revealed you could hear the sharp intake of breath all around the theatre. Fortunately, they didn’t go ahead with the scheme but not through want of trying.

 For all that, none of it was particularly funny. There were a few salutes to the original paradigm; for example a couple of verbose obfuscations from Sir Humphrey when threatened with the loss of his privileges, but in the main they fell flat. Most disappointingly, there was none of the even spar we usually saw in the TV episodes. Typically, the Minister or Humphrey would both have an agenda for which they would fight and somehow reach an amusing compromise after both had lost a bit of bark on the way through. This time, all the problems were the Prime Minister’s and Humphrey’s secret agenda was identified and crushed all too quickly. So quickly, it felt tacked on and didn’t add to the plot.

 Likewise the conclusion – somehow pulling global warming out of the hat to save the PM’s bacon was just plain ludicrous. Yes, the topic did get an early mention in a vague attempt at covering tracks, but it had no relevance to the unfolding plot and so was an unlinked and unsatisfactory tool in its resolution. As for Humphrey getting a plum new job at the end – he hadn’t been angling for it as part of some devilish scheme so it didn’t make sense and just wasn’t funny.

 All in all, this was a major disappointment. Too obviously an attempt to cash in on an ancient classic, it was rushed, ribald, wrongly pitched and painfully rendered modern. It will seriously dent the reputations of the writers (although they’ll care less about the reviews when they read their bank statements).

 At least with the aging rock stars, they play the old material and you don’t mind paying for their superannuation. This play was like Mick Jagger stopping halfway through Brown Sugar and trying to rap with his homies.

Do you agree that Lynn and Jay have utterly ruined their reputations as brilliant writers of sitcom by trying to cash in on their 80s classic without a decent editing process?

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