Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 20 May, 2010

On one level, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's stage version of their classic 1980s BBC-TV comedy series has bridged the quarter-century gap well. The world of politicians and civil servants is now augmented by political advisers; topics include global warming, financial crisis, control orders and the like, as well as embracing a number of up-to-the-minute references to coalitions and minority governments. Nor are the actors entirely eclipsed by their predecessors. The series made stars of Paul Eddington as government minister (and later PM) Jim Hacker and Nigel Hawthorne as senior civil servant Sir Humphrey, often befuddling Hacker with polysyllabic verbiage but sometimes outfoxed by him.

As Sir Humphrey here, Henry Goodman is not simply smooth; he is buffed to a high sheen. If at moments he has the look more of a political party financier than a Whitehall mandarin, his urbanity sets the keynote even when he is for a moment or two not dominating events. David Haig plays Hacker in his own style; the affected Churchillisms do not work for him as they did for Eddington, his instinctive bewildered-and-fraying tone being far more successful. As Bernard, the principal private secretary caught between the two, Jonathan Slinger is as engagingly honest here as he was magnetically duplicitous as the RSC's Richard III.

What does not work, oddly, is the politics. The TV series flourished in an era of stark ideological distinctions, in which Hacker was clearly a Conservative. In 2010, ideology and presentation alike are nigh indistinguishable as between parties, and targets are less likely to be punctured by the darts of the script. Haig is not a natural Tory in demeanour, and the situation often resembles the last beleaguered months of Gordon Brown's premiership; however, issues such as climate change, the BBC and Daily Mail, and above all the callous opportunism with which criminality and immorality are considered as politically expedient, are such universal political features that the material paradoxically feels less powerful for its lack of party specificity. It is as if the Tory Jay (conspicuously knighted by Thatcher) and the socialist Lynn (who directs this production) had drafted a dramatic coalition agreement, permitting a quota of jibes at the bêtes noires of each, only to find themselves as a result in the soggy centre ground.

[FOOTNOTE: A subsequent letter to the FT from Jonathan Lynn denied that he had ever been a socialist.  Can't think where I picked that idea up; perhaps I'd read somewhere that he was to the left of Jay and over the years that datum became over-interpreted until it popped out like this.  Anyway, I'm wrong, but the error is preserved here.]

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage