A review of “Pardon Me, Prime Minister” by John Fisher
From the introductory BBC news announcement about the imminent budget (including a dire warning about the penalties for mobile phones ringing in theatres) to the opening of the curtain revealing the set both quality and originality were high. In his study at 10 Downing Street the Prime Minister’s desk stood complete with hotline, before a garden view, between panelled walls with portraits of the Queen and past prime ministers.
Philip Robinson playing the title character George Venables was a perfectly two-faced politician, publicly puritanical but secretly louche. After a moralising speech decrying alcohol and tobacco – he needed a cigar and a stiff whisky. Particularly when he knows he was about to be browbeaten again by chancellor Cramond who is after the top job. But these everyday miseries were as nothing after Shirley Springer arrived, a shapely reminder of a night as lively young bachelor at a Brighton Conference. As Shirley outlined intimate details of his tryst with her mother Dora she also showed him an incriminating photograph. As his situation got more and more desperate Venables lurched like a campaign bus on the roller coaster of public opinion, blustering confidence one minute, then fretful panic the next.
The PM’s major ally was his loyal private secretary and solver of problems Rodney (not Alistair) Campbell. Played by Jaba Bowman with just the right amount of deference he was almost completely unflappable. Often the straight man to his boss’s flustered disarray he frequently exposed the PM’s pomposity with some great deadpan lines. For example when coaching a speech “You said, I appeal to short-sighted people.” Or during their confidential discussions about the indiscretion of the PM’s “friend”, (who was in fact, of course, the PM himself). “I guessed sir. You’re not a very good liar. Away from the House, that is.”
Samantha Oliver as Shirley delivered a confident and revealing performance as the exotic dancer who sneaked into 10 Downing Street (via the Chancellor’s back passage) in order to confront the PM. Initially nervous and impersonating a journalist she was made even more uncomfortable as the PM attempted to seduce her. But she dramatically turned the tables him with the first of several bombshells, “And you Prime Minister, are my father!”. Shirley wanted changes to a budget that will put her out of work as an exotic dancer. Then as the PM stalled and spouted empty rhetoric – saying she has “laid those things bare that should remain covered up” – she stripped off behind him with obvious comic effect. “And I’m stayin’ here like this until you do something!” Her switch from nervous imposter to confident but semi-naked protestor might have been scripted in the less politically correct 1970’s, but her control of a challenging situation brought Shirley a post-modern feminist twist. While she remained deferential enough to apologise for calling him a pussyfooting spoilsport both she and her mother nevertheless stuck to their demand for change.
Sybil Venables, the PM’s wife was delightfully dotty, played both with aplomb and a plummy accent by Kirsty Bishopp. In the way of some aristocratic ladies of yore she ignored anything not of interest to her (such as the budget and her husband work) and focused on her role as figurehead of National Blood Donation Week and her impending birthday. “Welcome to Downing Street. May I invite you to become a blood donor?” Oblivious to her disruption of her husband’s meetings, and the ways of young people. “`Doing your own thing’ it’s called isn’t it?”, she breezed through the convoluted scenes with self-assurance. Muddling through when she can’t quite recall people’s name was clearly second nature and so in the final scene we were quite prepared to believe her when she said “I never did find out who they all were”.
With an accomplished but intelligible Scottish accent Paul Davey portrayed Chancellor Hector Cramond as an old school political bruiser. A mix of self-righteous puritan and authoritarian populist he bullied the PM into the strictest of budgets. Rarely smiling the closest he ever got to exhilaration was his zeal when discussing new taxes or trying to talk his way into the premiership. Firstly bemused, then exasperated by the PM’s erratic behaviour he gave some marvellous reactions to overhearing or seeing the PM in ever more compromising situations. As he progressed through shock and indignation to outright frenzy at the naked infamy in high office his facial expressions were a particular delight, before they were surpassed by his horror on being confronted by half-naked women. “Why is everyone undressed?” But Cramond evolved from an amusing but totall broken by the leap of a girl into his arms. “I didna recognise you in your underwear!”. But finally the man whose emotions seemed to run from rage to outrage he was guided to deliverance when the spark of humanity in him was revived.
Loraine Jordan was a pleasure as Shirley’s cheery and self-assured single mother Dora, a lady of “very progressive ideas” (although she was the only female member of the cast who remained fully clothed). A forthright character she was the driving force behind not only her daughter but the whole play. Down to earth in behaviour and outlook she is self-reliant and was prone to quoting Churchill. She rapidly showed that she has more backbone than any of the politici ans, particularly Venables “You’re still you, Moley. Stand by your convictions!” While not sophisticated Dora was nobody’s fool and always stands up for herself and the people she cares and for what she believes is right, like individual freedoms. With wonderful sangfroid she explained the finer details of Shirley’s birth to the PM – who had been a candidate for the election to fatherhood but had then “lost his deposit”. Exuding confidence Dora seemed the most practical person on stage, if not quite as cunning as Campbell. But her sentimental side showed too, especially in a touching pair of scenes with the Chancellor she softened some of the PM’s blows to Cramond’s ego before gently guiding him to a new way of life.
Jane Rotherbrook (Emma Hudson) was the self-assured upper-crust journalist who could have been a younger (but rather sharper) Mrs Venables with a similar presumption of superiority. Walking into the midst of the predicament she was at first joyfully unaware of the on-going shenanigans. “If only these walls could talk…”, but rapidly became part of the storyline when her dress was accidentally torn off. Unfazed by that (“damn nuisance”) and never shy, she happily made small talk with Campbell while dressed only her underwear. She was only mildly (but politely) taken aback when he offered her a surplus bra. Unequivocally strong she defied both unreasonable demands from the premier (I beg you, take off that dress!), and Campbell’s attempt to spin her story “I wasn’t born yesterday”. When Campbell tempted her with tales of “quite a bit of the other” and that she should wait for “the real scoop” she was setup for the kill.
The chancellor’s secretary Miss Frobisher, (if she even has a first name we only learn that it is not “Guinevere”) was charmingly portrayed by Beckie Burtenshaw. A model of efficiency (and full of facts about Hansard) she was the chancellor’s loya servant, but still more than keen to correct him on points of political history. Her dowdy exterior concealed a secret pining love of the handsome Campbell that was gradually liberated, from initial darting looks, mild but gauche flirting through to a precipitous embrace. When she literally let her hair down, and removed her spectacles we thought we’d seen it all, although clearly without her glasses she could see very little. But she turned out to have one more surprise for us (and the chancellor) in a stunning set piece as the play moved towards its finale.
Congratulations to directors Lance Milton and Emma Gosling, and to whole cast and many backstage workers at CDS. They say a week is a long time in politics, but four days is not long enough in political farce when it’s as good as this. As far as I am aware Pardon Me Prime Minister was the first Cuckfield Dramatic Society show to play to full houses on each of its four nights. Word is clearly spreading, and justly as this was another superb show in Cuckfield.