Saturday, 8 October 2016

REVIEW: Jonathan Pie at Hansom Hall / 'Yes Prime Minister' at The Little Theatre

Leicester was treated to a double dose of quality political satire on Thursday and Friday night, in the shape of two very different shows which embody two very different eras of politics and satire. Yes Prime Minister, although set in (almost) the present day, is very much rooted in a bygone age of politics and written in a style that has not graced our TV screens for many years. Whereas Jonathan Pie is very much satire for the modern 'social media' age, and even though this may lead you to suspect it is dumbed down for the 'attention-defecit' generation, it proved to be every bit as biting and well-written as the established classic that is Yes Prime Minister. There now follows a fairly lengthy review of both shows, along with a little bit of trivia and a couple of minor musings on the development of political satire over the past few decades.

Can't get no (ear)peace - Jonathan Pie

So, we start with Jonathan Pie, whose YouTube videos have racked up millions of views since he first started posting them little over a year ago. He's very much the definition of an 'internet sensation', yet unlike the mostly vacuous phenomena that usually qualify for that title, Pie actually contains a great deal of substance and often has something important to say. For the uninitiated, he's basically a parody of a TV news reporter. His videos always begin with the tail-end of a scripted news report that he's delivering to camera, and then the bulk of the video consists of Pie talking to the producer in his earpiece, giving his often frank opinions about the story he's just been reporting on. This often leads to some impressive and hilarious rants about the political issues of the day, and also offers a wonderful opportunity for him to question why the news media decide to cover a story in a certain way.

So how, then, does this translate to an hour-plus one-man stage show? Surely it can't just be a series of short rants in the style of his videos? Well, it isn't. Pie's creator Tom Walker comes from an acting/theatrical background, and has been able to successfully create a scenario within which to frame the show, in which he can do the odd piece to camera, have conversations with the unseen producer in his earpiece and his wife over the phone, and also include the studio audience within the set-up so that when he gets going on a rant, he's ranting directly at you, rather than just into the on-stage camera. This clever set-up allows the show to ebb and flow, as it deftly skips from political rally to one-man dramatic theatre piece, to full blown political farce, as well as giving Pie some sort of basic character arc and providing a satisfying climax to the show.

The genius of Walker's creation is that he's an angry character that says exactly what he thinks and doesn't mince his words. Whilst these traits are often linked with right-wing personalities, Pie's politics are very much left-leaning and boy does he lay into the Tories. But that's not to say he goes easy on the left - Jeremy Corbyn gets a very easy ride compared to his Conservative counterparts, but it is 'the left' itself that comes heavily under fire, for becoming too obsessed with the politics of equality and creating a culture of offence, rather than focusing on the rights and the needs of ordinary working people. Is it any wonder, he asks, that people hit by poverty and a crushing lack of jobs and housing are so easily seduced by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has swept the political arena and appears in the newspapers on a daily basis? Essentially this was an attack on the audience themselves, which largely consisted of middle-class liberal types, most of whom obviously hate the Tories and everything they've done in the name of austerity, but hardly any of whom will have really experienced the kind of poverty that drives ordinary people to turn on their immigrant neighbours and vote for Brexit. As is usually the case with this kind of crowd, the more Pie attacked them, the more they loved it and the longer the applause breaks became. Also taking a skewering were the Lib Dems, Trump, the BBC, free speech and the right to cause offence, the concept of charity and more besides.

So, some good points made about important subjects. But this wasn't entirely a political rally - there was just enough foul-mouthed, inappropriate humour dotted about to successfully break up the ranting, and a few cheap gags based on politicians' appearance (which Walker was savvy enough to have Pie apologise for when he made them). The show was also broken up with an amusing little Powerpoint presentation, several live pieces to camera which provided an occasional air of tension and showcased Walker's acting skills through the contrast between Pie's lively, earnest on-screen persona with his bitter and angry off-camera demeanour. But at no point was Walker's skill more on display than when Pie was talking to his ex-wife and child on the phone, which injected the politically-charged piece with a bit of real human drama. This added depth led me to imagine that the Pie character could be successfully expanded over, say a TV series or two, in much the same way as Alan Partridge grew from sports reporter parody, to failed chat show host, to bitter divorcĂ© living in a hotel and so on... Somebody call Armando Iannucci!!!

Classic series gets stage update - Yes Prime Minister

Speaking of Armando Iannucci, you may not know that he was inspired to create the sublime political sitcom The Thick of It after appearing on the BBC series Britain's Best Sitcom to make the case for Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister to win the title.... which neatly brings us to the second show in this review. I went to see the stage version of Yes Prime Minister a few years ago when it first appeared at Curve Theatre, but this week it's been running at the Little Theatre, produced by Leicester Drama Society. Written by the original creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, it took the characters from the successful BBC series and placed them in a contemporary setting, dealing with the current political hot-potatoes with all the same doublespeak, duplicity and deft blame-shifting that made the original series such a hit.

It is a sign of how quickly things are moving in the world of politics at the moment that this show, despite only being first performed in 2010, now seems dated in many ways. For a start there is a coalition government in place (and how we all wish that was still the case, knowing what we know now!). Secondly, Britain is still a functioning member of the EU and there is no talk of Brexit, UKIP, open hostility against immigrants on the streets etc, etc... to be honest it was bliss to get away from the current dystopia for a couple of hours! This sense of times past was naturally heightened by the writing, which seems to come from a very different era of comedy writing - one simply could not imagine something this subtle, verbose and slow-burning gaining any traction on TV in the current age. Granted, Iannucci managed something similar with The Thick of It, but the whole package was wrapped up in a very modern way, with quick-cutting, documentary-style camerawork, loose semi-improvised dialogue and lashings of highly creative swearing.

Despite the anachronistic feel, this is still a very enjoyable play, which builds very slowly in the first half whilst it carefully constructs several houses of cards which all come crashing down in the second half, in which the production shifts into full-on farce mode. The cast, comprising seven members of the Leicester Drama Society, dealt admirably with the heavily verbose and complex script, and on the whole did a great job of making the familiar roles of Jim Hacker/Sir Humphrey etc their own.

David Lovell in particular was pitch-perfect as PM Jim Hacker - carefully treading the thin line between statesmanlike leader and helpless nervous wreck. Charles Moss' portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby was markedly different from Nigel Hawthorne's take on the character. Moss seemed less calm and calculating, and expressed a lot more of his inner workings through his expressions and body language, which definitely added to the sense of farce. He rightly received the most applause breaks as well, for his lengthy attempts to confuse Hacker with hugely convoluted answers to simple yes/no questions. Joff Brown was solid as a rock in the role of Bernard Woolley, often providing the perfect island of calm amidst the raging storm that is Hacker and Sir Humphrey's exchanges.

The fourth principal cast member, and the only character who didn't feature in the original series, was Cathy Rackstraw as the PM's special adviser Claire Sutton. Rackstraw more than held her own amongst the 'boys in suits', delivering a handful of killer lines at crucial points in the plot and providing a much needed note of sanity when the men resorted to prayer as a desperate solution to a terrible situation. It's just a shame that at times, the character of Sutton was criminally underused, being relegated for long periods of her stage time to merely serving the plot, or, at one point, the drinks. In fact, at one point I was starting to seriously worry about the portrayal of women in this show, especially when the procurement of 'hookers' became a major plot point. But this worry was eased somewhat by Hacker's refusal to subject British women to being treated as objects, thus cleverly turning it into a barbed comment on the current trend for anti-immigrant sentiment.

All in all, this was a fine production of a witty and intelligent script. And for all its 'bygone era' charms, it still had a lot to say about the current political situation. Seeing it the night after Jonathan Pie was very useful in terms of being able to trace a lineage of quality satire from the early 80s to the present day, with The Thick of It essentially being the missing link between these two shows. Both are highly relevant in their own way, and the differences in tone and presentation were reflected by the differing ages of the audiences that came to see them. It would have been nice to see more young faces at Yes Prime Minister and more old ones at Jonathan Pie, but I guess one can't be surprised that the 'classic sitcom' would draw a largely grey-haired crowd and the 'internet sensation' a significantly younger one. But if nothing else, these two shows prove that in this turbulent age, we can thank our lucky stars that there are still people writing intelligent, cutting satire that can give us plenty to think about whilst we laugh at ourselves and our leaders.

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