Yes, Prime Minister: Theater Review

Labour-ious comedy based on beloved Blighty series flummoxes a skillful troupe of game players.

A resurrection, for the stage, of the hit BBC satirical political series of the 1980s comes to the Geffen in Westwood.

Updating its references, this legit resurrection at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood of the hit BBC series Yes, Minister (1980-82) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88) by the original creators, Jonathan Lynn and the now knighted Antony Jay, showcases their benighted characters. Transplanted from nostalgic West End success, this toothless satire manages to slow-burn where it should be snippy and to render even frenetic frenzy confoundingly static.

Principal players are common-touch politico Jim Hacker (Michael McKean), now Prime Minister by dint of a razor-thin coalition, and his pompously manipulative fixer-nemesis Sir Humphrey Appleby (Dakin Matthews), the Cabinet Secretary. Together they confront the fallout of a European debt crisis while ensconced at the official country residence, Chequers. 

Sir Humphrey routinely condescends to his boss behind his back, enlisting the Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Jefferson Mays) in conspiracies to withhold major policy decisions (such as the UK joining the common currency) from the PM’s admittedly short attention span. The potential salvation for all is a 10 trillion loan from Kumranistan against future EU oil purchases. Provided, of course, that Her Majesty’s government that night procures for the visiting foreign minister the services of three multicultural prostitutes, who can only confidentially penetrate the security cordon by being transported by the RAF’s helicopter for the Queen. This being an English comedy, priggish scruples stand stubbornly in the way of decisive action.

There’s some welcome heft to the material in that it mostly avoids standard-issue political spoofing to focus more valuably on the foibles of actual policy and governance. Even the most competent of civil servants, let alone the less comprehending elected officers, are constantly overwhelmed by events, to which they inevitably act exclusively by reacting. As Hacker puts it, “I’m the leader, I have to follow what the people want.” The invented issues are less absurd than informed, and intelligent right up to the edge of plausibility.

Nevertheless the comic sensibility remains resolutely fusty and fussy. This is no farce, no swinging doors, and no sex please, they’re British. Instead, everyone is mortified into paralysis at the thought of the least prospective embarrassment, or worse, blame.

The action never leaves the PM’s study, and too many of the best gags -- such as Sir Humphrey’s prolix avoidances of giving a straight answer -- score on the wind-up rather than the punch, as we wait for the joke we already get to play itself out. (Matthews’ Shakespearean comedy chops, however, are invariably wondrous to behold). It’s possible that the humor in slightly differentiated variations on dithering doesn’t export especially well, particularly without the already established emotional rapport that would be peculiar to the indigenous audience.

When the second act begins with everyone frozen in their position before the curtain, it accurately portends that the pace will get even more logy. When the subject turns to global warming, there’s time to consider that the polar ice caps might be melting more rapidly than the pace of the staging.

However sparse on real laughs, these sturdy types are good company, and the actors are fun to watch even when they aren’t scoring. McKean seems to be channeling a litany of Jack Nicholson facial expressions, perhaps accentuated by the hairline and the low-angle view from the audience, though he executes them more deftly at this point than the Founder himself. He does pull off the task of projecting both dim intellectual candlepower and native shrewdness, abetted by the mysteriously lithe presence of a brainy aide, Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton (Tara Summers), who sports a black dress so brilliantly cut it can be nigh impossible to move one’s gaze above her nonpareil calves.

The protean Mays has to content himself with a stock figure as an allegiance-torn, erudite weakling with principles, though he wrings enough changes on two-faced ambivalence that his pained pantomime takes on the flourish of dance. And it would be remiss not to recognize the bracing comic confidence of the redoubtable Brian George in an urbane cameo as the polished Kumranistani Ambassador, whose diplomatic professionalism contrasts amusingly with the unrelieved tizzy of his Brit counterparts.  

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through July 14)

Cast: Michael McKean, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays, Tara Summers, Brian George, Time Winters, Stephen Caffrey

Director: Jonathan Lynn

Playwrights: Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, based on their characters created for the BBC TV series

Set designer: Simon Higlett

Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi

Costume designer: Kate Bergh

Sound designers: Andrea J Cox, John Leonard