‘Yes, Prime Minister’ Skewers Politicos, War Lovers: Review

Ben Barnes, left, and Genevieve O'Reilly in "Birdsong" at the Comedy Theatre in London. The play, directed by Trevor Nunn, is playing at The Comedy Theatre through Jan. 15, 2011. Photographer: Johan Persson/The Comedy Theatre via Bloomberg

U.K. Prime Minister Jim Hacker is bouncing with glee. The Kumranistan president is about to give Europe a loan of $10 trillion, and Hacker can buttress his leadership. There’s just one tiny catch. It involves an underage prostitute.

One of the many impressive things about Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s laugh-a-minute new comedy “Yes, Prime Minister,” now playing in the West End, is that the situation could be portrayed equally well as tragedy. The satire springs from a well of discomfort.

The loan can only be secured if Hacker and his staff will supply a 15-year-old call girl to the Kumranistan foreign minister, who’s staying under his roof. Ten trillion dollars and the financial security of Europe against one teeny human-rights abuse? Who would know?

That situation provides the plot of the comedy. It’s also the framework for a series of asides skewering the hypocrisy of politicians and civil servants. Oil, British insularity, global warming, the financial meltdown, Islam, the right, the left -- all are flayed with the razors of wit.

It takes place on a single set, designed to look like a comfortable paneled office at Chequers, the U.K. prime minister’s country retreat.

The play is based on the popular 1980s TV sitcom of the same name by the same authors, which pits the opportunist PM Jim Hacker against the wily and self-serving head of the civil service, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Each comically strives to master the other, and to find solutions to problems that will save their own faces.

Slickly Suave

David Haig (Hacker) and Henry Goodman (Appleby) play their characters in a broader manner than their former television counterparts. It’s none the worse for that. One moment, the disheveled Haig crumples on the floor in distress, another he’s posturing with hilariously pompous relish. Goodman’s suavity is deliciously greasy and unctuous. A stage comedy like this can cope with large gestures.

It also could cope with a better second act. The farcical mechanics don’t quite chug with the same well-oiled precision after the intermission even if the satirical tirades are just as sharp. The BBC? “Optical chewing gum.” Democracy? “Fine, as long as the right people do the voting.”

The scalpel is wielded with precision. That’s why the laughs are so true and so long. Rating: ***.


Rachel Wagstaff, who has adapted Sebastian Faulks’s best-selling novel “Birdsong” for the stage, could learn a thing or two about precision.

The play, directed by Trevor Nunn, tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young man who embarks on an affair in provincial France in 1910. The second part of the story deals with Stephen’s life in the trenches in World War I.

Stephen (Ben Barnes) spends a lot of the time narrating his own actions directly to the audience. “I watched Isabelle.” “My leg brushed hers.” “I walked up the stairs.” That sort of thing. Other characters helpfully read letters out loud while they’re writing them.

Narrative exposition is always hard for playwrights. The solution isn’t to dump buckets of it over the audience. Hasn’t Wagstaff heard of “Show, don’t tell”?

Against a series of video projections displaying sketches and photos of French locations, Nunn’s minimalist three-hour production proceeds with all the speed of an arthritic tortoise. Too much of the acting feels bland and emotionally undetailed. A quick swansong for “Birdsong,” I expect. Rating: *.

“Yes, Prime Minister” is at the Gielgud Theatre. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5130.

“Birdsong” is at the Comedy Theatre through Jan 15, 2011. See http://www.ambassadortickets.com or call +44-844-871-7627.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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