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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Emily Joyce, David Haig and Jonathan Slinger/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

A third of the way through Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay’s stage adaptation of their much-loved TV series, Sir Humphrey reveals to Jim Hacker the route of a proposed $10 trillion pipeline from Kumranistan that will hopefully solve some of the new coalition government’s catastrophic debt problems. The route, which wriggles like a discombobulated worm through nearly every country in Europe, is as muddled as Hacker’s grasp on the finer points of ethics, and would likely be as muddled as Hacker’s long-term strategy for running the country if such a strategy existed. To make things worse, Sir Humphrey seems intent on making Britain join Europe by the back door, the BBC is smelling blood, and the cabinet is increasingly querulous. And the Kumranistan foreign minister, over at Chequers for the weekend, is insisting before he goes to bed on a spot of light entertainment in order to seal the deal, and the sort he has in mind simply cannot be found at 10pm on a Friday night in Buckinghamshire.
Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay have turned their terrific 1980s Whitehall satire into a farce in order to cope with the narrative demands of spooling a half-hour TV episode into a two-and-a-half-hour stage play. Thanks in part to the actor playing the beleaguered PM Jim Hacker, David Haig, an actor capable on stage of seemingly suffering organ failure over something as simple as making a cup of tea, the endless pile-up of plot lines find their own chaotic comic momentum. The more difficulties he faces, the more brilliantly bewildered and apoplectic Haig becomes. Henry Goodman’s slippery, silky Sir Humphrey, by contrast, remains as cool as a cucumber, although the sangfroid slips perhaps a little too excessively when Hacker vengefully suggests looking again at the Civil Service’s index-linked pension scheme. Neither remotely resembles his TV predecessor, Paul Eddington or Nigel Hawthorne, and is all the better for it. There is also excellent support from Jonathan Slinger as Hacker’s private secretary Bernard as a morally tormented social misfit and a spot-on Jeremy Paxman impersonation from Tim Wallers.
Still, despite some zingy one-liners ("I don’t know what else I don’t know," says Hacker to Humphrey. "Do you know?"), Lynn and Jay’s play hits several clanging bad notes. The cuddly velvet glove in which the original TV show concealed its fist of iron looks positively elderly compared to the cut-and-thrust brutalism deployed by Armando Iannucci’s more recent political satire The Thick of It. Jay and Lynn certainly try and drag YPM into the 21st century by way of Blackberries, a female special adviser (although Emily Joyce’s Claire is so underused you wonder why they bothered) and several breezy modish references to global warming, civilisation clashes between east and west and the Daily Mail. But if the key plot line (involving Hacker frantically trying to procure a teenage prostitute while wondering if it really is the right thing to do) is a bleak, deliberately provocative attack on the moral expediency of government, it’s also crude and unfunny. Some of the humour plays knowingly fast and loose with political correctness but also veers unpleasantly close to racism. YPM is as sharp as ever on the politics of damage limitation and, thanks to Haig, is also a highly entertaining study in panic. But it certainly hasn’t aged very gracefully.


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