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"Yes, Prime Minister" on the Stage

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Some of you may remember a British television show from the 1980s, Yes, Prime Minister. It was (and is) a delightfully funny look at all the problems both of bureaucracy and of (especially democratic) government in general. After a twenty-year hiatus, the creative minds behind the original show, writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, have reunited to bring Yes, Prime Minister to the stage. I recently had the pleasure of seeing the new play at the Gielgud Theatre in London, and I can say that the liberty-minded will find it quite appealing.

Much has happened since the original television series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were first aired, but the play seamlessly adapts itself to current world problems. Every important issue in contemporary economic policy is ruthlessly dissected, from the European Union and the European Central Bank, to the financial crisis, bailouts, global warming, and the BBC. I’m not sure if it’s because the writers are older and wiser, or perhaps because the world itself is even more absurd now than it was twenty years ago, but this new presentation of Yes, Prime Minister is even more libertarian than its predecessor. I will not say anything of the plot other than to add that it involves a more serious moral conundrum than any of those faced in the original shows.

The biggest concern for fans of the original may be the casting, which I am happy to report is a success. David Haig replaces the late Paul Eddington in the role of Jim Hacker, the bubbling prime minister whose incompetence has ensured him the top position in British government. Haig looks and sounds just like a young John Cleese, bringing both familiarity and novelty to the character. Henry Goodman plays the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby (originally performed by the brilliant Nigel Hawthorne), the verbose and conniving civil servant determined to consolidate power in the central bureaucracy while steadfastly resisting any sort of reform. Jonathan Slinger is Bernard Woolley, the overly-literal private secretary of the prime minister, who constantly tries to navigate between his duties to the prime minister and to the civil service. Unfortunately the Bernard character is somewhat underplayed in the script, and we miss out on some of those classic moments where Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard in crystal clear terms just how government really works. All of the characters give us just enough familiarity to make us laugh and remind us of the old days, while at the same time providing us with enough novelty that we don’t feel as if we’re watching a pale imitation of the original material.

If you have not seen Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister, then I urge you to rent or buy them if possible. And if you happen to visit London in the near future, you must not miss this hilarious and thoughtful take on government and its innumerable failings.

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