Prime ministers come and go and so do the actors playing them, including the role of the beleaguered Jim Hacker created by Paul Eddington in the Eighties BBC TV sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister.
Various actors have taken it on in the stage version which ran for two West End seasons and as many national tours and now arrives at the Lyceum Theatre next week on what writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn insist is the last anniversary tour
Michael Fenton Stevens, a familiar face from TV, is the latest to take on the role of the hapless Jim Hacker, opposite Crispin Redman as Sir Humphrey Appleby and Michael Matus as Principle Private Secretary Bernard Woolley.
It has been updated to the era of coalition which is bedding in but with little hope of harmony, Hacker is struggling to keep international troubles at bay. To add to squabbles over the collapsing euro and the push for greater austerity, he is now faced with a moral dilemma caused by dubious diplomatic demands. Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey is in favour of greater austerity for ordinary people but not for senior civil servants.
The actor, currently most recognised as Sir Henry in ITV’s Benidorm, knew the play intimately, having been on previous tours in the smaller role of the BBC interviewer.
“I have been promoted,” he laughs. “It’s good in one way that I already knew the play well but at the same time you have to get the previous performance out of your head and that’s the fun of it and what makes the play a different show night after night.”
Stepping up to the title role “is very demanding but it makes all the more fun,” he says, and the demands are not merely in dialogue but physically as well. He found himself “charging around like a bull in a china shop” as the tension is cranked up in farcical elements.
“The TV series and the theatrical version are very different things,” says Fenton Stevens. “You have to be cleverer with a two-hour stage play, the dilemma has to be greater.” On the previous tour this manifested itself in a foreign dignatary’s unsavoury request for a young girl. “In the present climate that’s not a runner so we have made that element of the plot much lighter but the dilemma is still there,” explains the actor. “John Lloyd continually re-writes to keep it topical”
Fenton Stevens is a man with impeccable comedy connections which started in the Eighties with Radio 4’s Radio Active also featuring Angus Deayton with whom he became a founder member of the band, The Hee Bee Gee Bees. Another claim to fame was that he was the voice behind the Spitting Image 1986 number 1, The Chicken Song. John Lloyd was producer of that, of course.
Another key collaborator has been Andy Hamilton for whom he has appeared in Trevor’s World of Sport and Drop the Dead Donkey and 17 years of the Radio 4 sitcom Old Harry’s Game.
“It was Andy who recommended me to John Lloyd. He has been very good to me over the years.”
Yes, Prime Minister is at the Lyceum Theatre from Monday to Saturday.