IMAGINE your delight if, as an enterprising regional production company, you were approached by a venerable writer and offered the “final part” of a much-loved television series as a world premiere. That’s what happened to Cirencester’s Barn Theatre, when Jonathan Lynn, half of the duo that created Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, suggested staging I’m sorry, Prime Minister – I can’t quite remember, at The Barn.
There were 37 episodes of the TV series back in the days when St Margaret of Grantham was in her pomp, and audiences have voted it the sixth best sitcom of all time. Lynn’s new play, which he describes as “elegiac”, introduces the devoted fan-base to the leading characters in the present day.
Casting was announced, led by Martin Jarvis as Hacker and Clive Francis as Sir Humphrey, and a date was set. Then it was postponed. Then, as rehearsals began, 82-year-old Jarvis withdrew for personal reasons and 80-year-old Lynn, already directing the play, stepped in. Days before the opening night, Lynn returned home to America for family health reasons. Up stepped well-known Bristol-based actor Christopher Bianchi, who was to have played the minor role of The Visitor, into the role of Jim, now Lord, Hacker.
Set in the living room of the Master of Hacker College, the widowed and confused 80-something year old Lord Hacker is facing the chop. He’s in need of some personal care, and Sophie, a former student with a first in English, is interviewing for the job on the very day that The Visitor comes to say Hacker’s tenure is at an end – in spite of his and Sir Humphrey Appleby’s best earlier efforts to ensure it was a job for life. Jim has made some inappropriate comments about some of those increasingly numerous things that exercise the sensibilities of “young people today”, and the students and academic body of the college want him out.
What does Jim Hacker do in a crisis? Call Sir Humphrey. And the two men rapidly fall back into the familiar pattern they created in the 1980-1988 run of the sitcom.
Jonathan Lynn has lost none of his skill in creating lines for the two protagonists. Sir Humphrey’s long speech in the first act all but brought the house down at The Barn. Clive Francis’s incisive comic timing perfectly captures the brilliance of the beloved character, and Christopher Bianchi has just the right ridiculous bombast as Hacker. Both characters are now alone and estranged from children, and have a new fragility that touches the audience.
Michaela Bennison is the kind, highly intelligent Sophie – a “careworker” not a “carer”, as she repeatedly stresses (a carer is within the family, a careworker is someone who is paid, however badly). But her character is so evidently a “feed” for current tropes that you can almost guess the subject she might mention next.
The problem is that there are too many targets in this Hacker and Sir Humphrey swansong, although they may be deeply felt and many would be echoed by the majority of the audience.
It is a bit like visiting old relatives. We might care for them warmly, but sometimes their behaviour is just a bit too embarrassing to bear. The thing is, here, you can laugh out loud, a relief denied the many for whom being a “carer” becomes a necessity. There were some in the press night audience who found it impossible to laugh at the plight of these two frail old men.
I’m Sorry, Prime Minister hits a lot of current preoccupations and its warmth is infectious, as is the chilling reality of the loneliness of old age and the heavy price that power exacts from those who hold it and those around them.
I’m Sorry, Prime Minister continues at Bath Theatre Royal from 14th to 18th November, before its Cambridge run later in the month.