T last, Sir Humphrey Appleby may have met his match. In the new stage version of Yes, Prime Minister, Westminster’s wiliest bureaucrat comes up against a ‘‘special adviser’’ to Prime Minister Jim Hacker who challenges his ingenious evasions and bland obstructionism.
Her name is Claire Sutton, and even though he refers to her dismissively as ‘‘Dear Lady’’, Sir Humphrey cannot deny her lethal political skills.
‘‘Claire is quite tough – terrifying really,’’ says actor Caroline Craig, who plays Sutton.
‘‘She can hold her own when it comes to political badinage because she sees through the wall of words and all the games that are going on. But she has another weapon that Sir Humphrey (Philip Quast) doesn’t have in order to get the PM (Mark Owen-taylor) on side. Which is charm.’’
Blonde and blue-eyed, Craig radiates plenty of charm. But like Sutton, she possesses a core of steel. Which may explain why TV directors have been quick to cast her as hard-hitting cops – first, Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers, then Jacqui James in the first Underbelly.
‘‘Yeah, I’ve played a lot of police officers who almost have to be tougher than the blokes,’’ she laughs.
And she admits she feels ‘‘grounded and very powerful’’ as soon as she dons a police uniform.
In Yes, Prime Minister, Craig’s ‘‘uniform’’ is a red dress . . . and her weapon of choice? A Blackberry.
‘‘Claire is all about gadgets and connections,’’ Craig says.
‘‘A real operator. There’s a sense she needs to maintain a very steely front in these corridors of power, but she’s not above using her own sexuality or exploiting other women’s sexuality in order to succeed.’’
While Craig remembers joining a protest on the steps of Parliament when she was an arts student at Melbourne University, she says she ‘‘never got involved in any student politics, really’’.
‘‘I was always more interested in the theatre of it . . . the banners, the costumes and the singing.’’
Craig’s parents had divided loyalties (‘‘Dad’s very left-wing and Mum was more to the right . . .’’), but the whole family sat down to watch Yes, Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister on TV.
Craig was too young, however, to be able to savour the show’s convoluted wordplay (scripted by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) and has only recently revisited the 1980s series, which starred Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.
‘‘Now I appreciate how brilliant it is,’’ she says. ‘‘One of the joys for me is the verbal hazing, the way these characters out-talk, outwit, almost out-polite the other person to get what they want. The more oblique and roundabout you can be, the more venomous it is.’’
When it comes to venom, Underbelly is in a league of its own. Craig has narrated the entire gangland mini-series, in addition to playing Detective Constable James, and calls it ‘‘an incredible opportunity’’.
‘‘I’ve been really inspired by the character-driven drama of Underbelly. The structure of the storytelling felt so new and exciting. Comedy should be no less thrilling,’’ she says.
plays The Arts Centre Gold Coast from May 17-19.
Caroline Craig stars as Claire Sutton in