I saw this play back in September last year at the Gielgud. It's now moved along the road to the Apollo Theatre for another, well-deserved run. It's based on the highly successful TV sitcom which was originally entitled 'Yes, Minister'. As the series matured and developed, the minister concerned, Jim Hacker, became Prime Minister, and the title changed in line with the minister's new office. The writing team from the TV series - Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn – also wrote this stage version, so it's as sharp, crisp and delectably witty as ever.
Set in the Prime Minister's country residence of Chequers, the play is basically about the interactions between the UK Prime Minister and his civil service aids: the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and the PM's Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley. Sir Humphrey not only sees his role as supporting the Prime Minister and the cabinet, but also as the defender of the interests of the country (as he and the rest of the civil service interpret that) and ensuring that the more radical ideas the politicians concoct are sidelined, or shelved. Bernard, on the other hand, has the unenviable task of serving two masters – his civil service boss, Sir Humphrey, and the Prime Minister.
Simon Williams takes on the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby and proves rather more amenable as well as endearing, in spite of his fondness for convoluted, bureaucratic language. Richard McCabe is rather less frantic and fraught than his predecessor in the role even if, at one point, he has to hide from the mounting difficulties by hiding under his desk and seeks more than a little comfort from alcohol. There's great support from Kevork Malikyan as the English-educated Ambassador of Kumranistan, who coolly delivers answers to impossible questions largely by passing the buck back to his British counterparts.
When I saw this play last year, I was concerned with one aspect of the plot which seemed to lead us into the rather unpalatable realms of paedophilia. The context is that an oil-rich nation, Kumranistan, has offered a massive loan to European Governments in which the UK will share. But the deal is blighted at the last minute when the Foreign Minister of Kumranistan asks to be provided with a 'schoolgirl' for the evening, ie for his sexual gratification. This immediately silenced the audience leaving them, I think, rather shocked. It's all resolved with good taste and without complying with the noxious request and, of course, it's used as a device to introduce a moral dilemma. Previously, I felt rather uncertain about the idea but, seeing it again, it actually seems a bold decision. Making the audience feel uncomfortable actually adds both to the dramatic nature of the dilemma, and also the subsequent humour which evolves from the way the characters try to resolve the issue.
If you haven't seen the TV series, you will still be able to enjoy this cleverly written and wittily observed play because it is completely self-contained and doesn't assume any prior knowledge. The situations are, of course, designed to stretch believability, but one can't help feeling that there is considerable truth in the relationships, motivations and strategies of the key players here. Even on a second viewing, it's still gloriously and sometimes excruciatingly funny.
"Now making its second West End appearance, the piece is still funny."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Much to enjoy in Lynn’s sharply directed production...a highly entertaining evening."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph