In St Stephen’s Tavern, an ornate Westminster boozer favoured by offduty MPs, sit David Haig and Henry Goodman, the lead actors in a new stage production of Yes, Prime Minister. Goodman just wants a sparkling water, Haig plumps for an ale called Badger. They are relaxing with a drink after a dehydrating Hotline photo shoot under the midday sun in front of the Houses of Parliament, where they vied for space with child reporters for the BBC’s Newsround. Haig, as well as being an Olivier-winning theatre actor and theatre writer, has a host of film and TV credits to his name. He shared a cinema screen with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Two Weeks Notice, while his TV roles include The Thin Blue Line and The Thick of It. ‘A young audience seeing Yes, Prime Minister at the theatre now will feel as though they’re seeing an elegant version of The Thick of It,’ says Haig, who plays pompous Prime Minister James Hacker. ‘If they enjoyed that abrasive political satire they’ll enjoy this as well, because the issues are apposite and modern.’ Almost bald and with a fluffy moustache, Haig is probably one of Britain’s most recognisable character actors. ‘One of the first questions the writers of Yes, Prime Minister asked me was: “You won’t mind if we put some bald jokes in, will you?”’ he chuckles. Henry Goodman, the silver-haired actor who has won an Olivier twice, plays the oily-yet-impressive civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by Nigel Hawthorne in the TV series), who deploys rapid-fire wordplay to endlessly manipulate Hacker to his own ends. SEPTEMBERHOTLINE
‘That literary tradition of well-crafted wit is a big part of what the writers do,’ says Goodman. He apparently enjoys gently knocking the establishment, having starred to critical acclaim in the biting theatre satire Feelgood. He calls this show ‘a savage attack on spin-doctoring in the Labour party. I played the Alastair Campbell-type character. There was, unofficially, an embargo on it within the Labour party. Ministers were advised not to be seen going to it, but I got phone calls from several who had, and who liked it. For MPs there’s a need, and a pride, in being played on stage.’ ‘Apparently, we’re expecting some government ministers when this opens in the West End,’ adds Haig, ‘and we know they might leave saying: “Of course, it’s nothing like that in real life.” But with Yes, Prime Minister, that’s a hard case to argue.’ Yes, Prime Minister has been adapted by the series’ original writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, not only for the West End stage, but also for the political climate of 2010. We now meet Hacker as the beleaguered prime minister of a wobbly coalition government, facing the global crisis of a financial meltdown, among other challenges. ‘Most of the material was actually written a year ago,’ says Haig of the plot’s eerie accuracy, ‘and if anything it’s even more up-to-date now than it was then. Presumably that’s why they were so successful 25 years ago, because they were so prescient. There’s universality to the themes they write about, a comfortable recognition. Actually, I use the word comfortable,
Photography: Tim White
It’s Westminster in the West End. As 80s TV fave Yes, Prime Minister opens on the London stage, its stars tell Sophy Grimshaw why its satire seems more relevant today than ever
READY TO MOCK Haig (left) and Goodman pause outside the institution they’re sending up
for political Animals If you’re headed to London to see Yes, Prime Minister, why not make a political weekend of it? You could take a 75-minute guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, as this year the summer tours season has been extended to September, and includes Saturday tours (1–4 and 20–30 Sept; parliament.uk).
but some parts of the play are definitely not comfortable to watch. There’s an edge to it that young audiences will appreciate. It’s provocative. It seduces you for the first half hour – it’s as though you were watching an episode on stage; then there’s a change of direction and a stunned silence from the audience.’ ‘There’s a feeling of, wow, Yes, Prime Minister is going into that territory…’ says Goodman, careful not to give away the plot. ‘It’s very topical, but it’s not the David [Cameron] and Nick [Clegg] show,’ he clarifies. ‘For one thing, in the play Hacker has been the prime minister for a long time, has got a slim majority and is now having a tough time fighting an election.’ There’s also a wider point he wants to make: ‘This isn’t about mocking the current prime minister. It’s not about not trying to get a gag a minute based on what somebody said last night on telly. It’s deeper. It’s how these people cope under these pressures, which we all know about from the press before we go into the theatre.’ One of his favourite contemporary updates is that ‘Appleby now has to contend with pressure SEPTEMBERHOTLINE
from a government special advisor, the character played by Emily Joyce. She emerges from a hidden door behind a bookcase, which I think is very fitting.’ As for the challenge of a TV to theatre transition, the play has already proved its mettle with a critically acclaimed and sold-out run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, which prompted this West End transfer. Haig rightly calls its success ‘unheard of ’ for a TV sitcom adaptation. ‘The writers have found a theatre engine inside the play which is engaging for a fresh, new audience,’ says Goodman. ‘Creating hours of theatre is very different to creating half-hour TV episodes. There are particular ways of shaping and sharing a show for a theatre space. The writers have turned up the gas underneath it, so you can light the fuse and watch it go for two hours.’ ‘We found a new energy for the play,’ agrees Haig. ‘It’s about the exchange of ideas, it’s intellectually driven, but there’s madness to the play that’s always there underneath.’ Yes, Prime Minister From 17 Sept Gielgud Theatre, 39–45 Shaftesbury Av, London W1, 020 7492 1551, gielgud-theatre.com
Yes, Prime Minister has had a contemporary update, say its stars
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