Theatre Review: I’m Sorry, Prime Minister (I Can’t Quite Remember)

Words by Melissa Blease

Hacker and Appleby are back! Okay, that news might not excite fans of iconic 1980s-era TV duos such as, say, Crockett and Tubbs, or Cagney and Lacey, or Rod Hull and Emu. But the main characters in a satirical British sitcom set in the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall following the ministerial career of a fictional British cabinet minister and his fictional Permanent Secretary were never going to be quite as exciting as their primetime TV contemporaries, were they?

Still, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Minister series (38 episodes in total, including the follow-up series Yes, Prime Minister, when Hacker became PM) became an enduring Very British Success, winning multiple prestigious awards, topping multiple Greatest British TV Programme/Best Sitcom charts… and even spawning an early video game. By today’s standards, it may not have been as slick and glossy as American TV drama series The West Wing, nor was it ever as brutally satirical as Armando Iannucci’s BritCom TV hit The Thick of It. The series did, however, heavily influence both.

Jay and Lynn collaborated again in 2010 to produce a stage play of the series. Following Jay’s death in 2016, I’m Sorry, Prime Minister is the only Yes, Minister-themed work written by Lynn alone, and the show is dedicated to Jay’s memory.

Now in his dotage, former PM Jim Hacker is facing eviction from both his rather vague role as Master of the Oxford college that he raised funds for and the on-campus flat that came with the rather dodgy deal. “Inappropriate” comments secretly recorded at a college dinner have confirmed his pale, male and stale status; Hacker is, if you like, the living embodiment of Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes statue. Who ya gonna call, Jim? Old cohort Sir Humphrey Appleby, of course! But Sir Humphrey’s got serious problems of his own to deal with… and it’s Hacker’s bright young care worker Sophie who eventually rescues them both.

Lynn has not shied away from the stark realities of the age and stage that both of his formerly formidable characters would be at today. Yes, there’s lashings of humour in a script laden with flashes of quick-fire wit. Yes, the political references are on point, witty and entirely relevant to today’s audiences. But the frustrations, fragilities and fears of later life are spotlight themes too, woven as naturally into the drama as references to Brexit, austerity and cancel culture.

Christopher Bianchi has artfully sidestepped the inevitable comparisons with Paul Eddington’s TV version of Hacker by apparently not even attempting to step into his shoes; heck, Bianchi’s Hacker can’t even put his own shoes (or even his socks) on any more. He needs reminding to go for a pee, he has no relationship with his daughter and he’s spent his savings on care for his terminally ill wife. But still, but still… he’s funny, and resourceful in his own, defiant way, and egomaniacal enough to rage against the dying of the light, constantly reminding himself and anybody who’s listening that he was once the greatest Prime Minister of all time.

Similarly, the utterly delightful Clive Francis’s Appleby is all his own work. There are glimmers of Nigel Hawthorn’s delivery in his performance, but the subtle charisma behind his apparent authority is forged by a poignant desperation that feels tremendously authentic. When we learn, for example, that he’s been forced to yield his estate to his son and the daughter-in-law he loathes, he’s audaciously rebellious against their actions, writing off their wrongdoings by saying that interacting with his children is “like dealing with the Treasury”… and that’s just one of several impeccable bon mots that make Appleby/Francis the star of the show.

As Hacker’s care worker Sophie, Michaela Bennison moves the story along while serving as a foil for the themes at the heart of the drama. By intelligently challenging yet increasingly tenderly supporting both men, Sophie’s role could be interpreted as contemporary revival of the original Yes, Minister’s Bernard Woolley who, in his role as the fictional Principal Private Secretary to the fictional Minister for Administrative Affairs (and later the fictional Prime Minister himself) acted as an influential intermediary between Hacker and Appleby. Sophie/Bennison gives the drama contemporary cultural climate context too; lively, well-balanced debates around ‘wokery’, deplatforming, the use of outdated/insulting language and cancel culture are all present and politically correct.

The pace of the expeditious script slows down a bit in the second half, when speed gives way to sentiment and a denouement that, while as comfortable and cosy as the slippers that Hacker eventually slips his bare feet into, feels a little bit too obvious and tidy to be “the final chapter” in the Yes, Minister yarn. But then again, perhaps Lynn didn’t want to take Hacker and Appleby beyond Shakespeare’s “lean and slippered pantaloon” of the sixth age of man that they find themselves in, preferring instead to describe I’m Sorry, Prime Minister [to Iwan Lewis, CEO and Artistic Director of Barn Theatre] as “Like King Lear, but much funnier”. I say yes to that.

Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 18 November.