Like many of my generation, my first experience of theatre-going was provided by the repertory theatre in our small town. We took it for granted then that there would be something new for our entertainment every week or fortnight, and several of the performers used the demanding experience to go on to greater things. Today, ‘cutting your teeth in rep’ is an experience mostly denied to young actors, as is the fun for the audiences of seeing the same faces in different guises, so it is a splendid development that a brief season of professional rep is playing at the Mowlem.
The first offering, Yes, Prime Minister, is by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the TV series of the same name that enjoyed such success. Even more than usual, that success was thanks to the writers: nothing much actually happened, but the dialogue was crisp, witty and at times thought-provoking. So it is in the stage play, posing dilemmas of political expediency versus ethical considerations and poking cynical fun at favourite Aunt Sallies like climate change fanatics, economists and, of course, Europe. This puts a responsibility on the actors to get full value from their lines and to provide impetus to the story by what they are as much as by what they do.
The cast at the Mowlem bring the clever script to life and extract all its comic potential. Keith Hill is superb as the smooth but two-faced Sir Humphrey, the Permanent Secretary who has an answer for (almost) everything, can run rings round the Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, and loves his circumlocutions and his Civil Service delaying tactics such as interdepartmental committees. This is a real tour de force.
Jack Mosedale, as Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, is much more forceful than in the TV version. His body language is good (although he wouldn’t have both hands in his pockets in the PM’s presence) and he acts well off the other members of the company. The programme tells us that this is Jack’s first professional job, but it’s a most promising start.
Although Jim Hacker is intellectually challenged compared with his two lieutenants, he should have an air of authority about him, and the ability to be suavely charming when it is called for. Marcus Patrick never quite finds these qualities in the character, and conveys perhaps too much shouty anger and not enough despair when things spin out of his control.
The fourth main player, Katherine Mount, puts across excellently the competence and efficiency of special adviser Claire Sutton. In the best traditions of rep, Peter Steele doubles up as the Kumranistani (yes, really) ambassador and a TV interviewer.
It cannot be easy to direct a play where so much hinges on the dialogue and so little on physical action, but director Rob Marsden puts enough movement on the stage to keep the audience interested. It is not his fault that the play falls away and becomes a little silly in act 2, but it still makes for a very entertaining evening. It is well worth catching one of the remaining performances on 11-12 or 14-15 August at 7.30.
It is followed by The Secret Garden (17-22 August) and The Game’s Afoot (24-29 August).