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November 03, 2006

Maggie Forever: Lincoln Allison on Thatcher the Musical

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Thatcher the Musical
"Dramaturg" by Kate Hale, Directed by Naomi Cook and Deb Barnard
Foursight Theatre Company
Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick University
31st October - November 4th 2006
and then on tour

I have a picture of Mrs Thatcher in my house. It is a print by an artist called David Pescod and is a pastiche of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe. The lady looks at you with inviting lips, but intimidating eyes. It was produced in 1979, well before Francois Mitterand described her as having "the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula" in an edition of one hundred. I later met the owner of the gallery who sold the prints and asked him if he thought it was mainly fans or opponents who bought the picture. He thought hard before saying, "Strangely enough, I think it's probably pretty close to 50/50". And my purchase was 50/50 in itself since I was and remain a fan and my wife was and remains the opposite.

So it must be with any artistic representation of Mrs T. Nothing ambivalent about the lady herself, but artistically she has to be ambivalent, appealing and repelling, heart and head, deference and revolt. Foursight Theatre Company have grasped this essential truth in Thatcher the Musical. Maybe it wasn't difficult to grasp because it is as difficult to imagine sitting through an evening based on a blue rinse Tory hagiography of the lady as it is to imagine sitting through an evening of anti-Thatcherite ramblings in the style of Ben Elton. In any case I guess mixed feelings about our only female prime minister would come fairly naturally to most actresses.

It is an ensemble piece, loosely in the style of Brecht or Littlewood. The cast consists of nine actresses plus an on-stage musician, who is male. All the actresses play Mrs Thatcher because there is "Young Maggie", "Diva Maggie", "Military Maggie" etc. The Maggies dress elaborately, all other characters simply and impressionistically. We move through the story more or less chronologically, from girlish ambition to "dippy" old age. It is pacy and fun and the choreography is inventive and a great strength. The 1975 leadership contest between Heath and Thatcher is represented as a boxing match in which the handbag is introduced as a decisive weapon. In parliamentary debates the troupe play the benches as well as the politicians. They do excellent dogs to represent the early cabinets and equally good penguins to signal the Falklands conflict.

The term Musical in the title has to be taken in the spirit of salty irony. Such music as there is in the show is very much part of the whole, but it wouldn't sell the tickets. It stands or falls - mainly stands - on its humour. The set doesn't matter much: it consists largely of a double staircase leading up to Number 10, a handbag which opens up to be a corner of a mock-regency drawing room and an organ which can turn into a tank. The outstanding performance is from Sarah Thom as "Narrator Maggie": she hectors the audience in a convincingly Thatcherite style. One of the Maggies moves among the audience asking the older members whether they voted for her and it turns out that some did, some didn't. I was slightly surprised at how freely people were prepared to divulge this information among an audience which was generally rather quiet and acquiescent.

Out of ten I would mark this production as follows: Overall conception - 8; Choreography - 8; (Hypothetical) script - 7; Dancing - 7; Set - 7; Acting - 6; Music - 5; Singing - 5. I think it has probably run its course. The initial tour was sufficiently successful that the production was extended, but this house was only two thirds full. I doubt that a West End production or movie now looms, but I would be pleased if I was wrong.

"Elderly Maggie" is seen as lonely and frightened with Dennis and Ronnie gone and worried about mental decline. Had that been the last scene I would have resented it, but Narrator Thatcher reappears to insist that the body may decay, but the idea lives on. We end with a triumphalist big number, all nine Maggies on stage telling us she is the iron in our bloodstream, she is what we see when we look in the mirror, she is in our (spiritual) DNA. And I, of course, am half glancing at the old lefties I know to be in the audience with their million dollar houses and their foreign holidays spending a strong currency and I'm thinking, "You've got to be a little bit grateful, haven't you?"

Probably not.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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