Heather Spurr reviews Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's West End comedy.
It is an unfortunate affliction of the young that they are forced to endure old people endlessly cooing about new discoveries that the youth familiarised themselves with years ago.
This is what Yes, Prime Minister felt like. It felt like watching your grandmother gasp at the internet in 2009, or listening to your great aunty gabble about skinny jeans in 2012.
The script was magnificently pleased with itself for recognising Twitter and why NOTW was a dodgy newspaper. Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn – who also wrote the original television version – must have drawn elation from the fact that they could write some up-to-the-minute stuff.
The play was promoted as an update to the fuddy-duddy eighties Westminster; portraying an equally fuddy-duddy 2012, but with a modern day twist.
The problem was, Jay and Lynn delighted so much in inserting current references, they forgot to make any of them very funny.
The play trundled along with a pedestrian, implausible plot – Robert Daws’s Jim Hacker ended up embroiled in a scheme to acquire a prostitute for a Middle-Eastern prince and summoning a religious fervour in order to pray to God for mercy on his soul. The phone rang constantly from journalists in the play to question Hacker on his increasingly baffling behaviour.
“Don’t answer it – Murdoch might have hacked it!” cried one cast member. My companions expelled an audible groan to my left. References to the eurozone collapse, Silvio Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss Kahn were hammy at best. The jokes were tired and just not clever enough for a political comedy, we concluded.
Yes, Prime Minister was at its best when it tapped into the undying features of government, in particular the relationship between politicians and the civil service. A cracking line came from Michael Simkins, playing Sir Humphrey, commenting that British politics had always been free from the “corruption of professionalism”.
I wished that they would take this further and make some more cutting comments about Whitehall. But the civil service critiques were dropped quickly, only to be replaced by bad prostitute jokes, which began to border on the offensive.
I noticed a few guffaws in the audience, to which I turned to incredulously, trying to ascertain which spectators had such different funny bones to mine. Accordingly, I began to question whether this play really just wasn’t my scene and I planned to write an apologetic review, expressing regret that my brain was unable to process such amusing japes.
But I determined that my opinions were mine and that it would be very forward of me to try and to tap into the minds of my fellow audience members.
I decided as I walked home down the real Whitehall (where the Trafalgar Studios are based) that unfortunately for Jay and Lynn, comedy – and more importantly – politics, have moved on. It will no longer do to lightly poke fun at the overly fastidious mandarin.
We have instant humour on Twitter, with John Prescott’s infamous hashtags and cutting jibes on Guido Fawke’s satirical blog. Programmes like 2012 and The Thick of It push boundaries and are not afraid to touch on difficult issues that eighties shows would not have touched. Yes, Prime Minister was just a little too tame, just a little too obvious.
The comedy might have satisfied audiences in its day, but I am afraid in the early 2010s, Hacker just doesn’t hack it.
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