Originally written for Exeunt.
As with its last attempt to address current affairs (emphasis on the current) in Hacked, Theatre503’s night of plays inspired by the legacy of Margaret Thatcher is both aided and hampered by its immediacy. These short pieces aren’t quite dancing on the grave of the Iron Lady, but her death and the potent set of feelings it brought to the surface remain fresh in the collective memory. This adds a certain charge to this range of theatrical responses, which often exploit the rawness of the issues they grapple with, but equally invites some rushed thinking. Arguments made overnight are often flawed ones.
The result, somewhat unsurprisingly, is a spirited but uneven night of political theatre. Despite setting their sights on a wide spectrum of issues thrown up by Thatcher’s death, few of these pieces achieve the same punch as Tim Etchells’ 55 Funerals, an immediate but searing deployment of political anger. The tone here is more often questioning, ironic or pointedly shrewd.
The evening opens in the crowded theatre foyer with Brian Walter’s Apples, a sharp three-part breakdown of neoliberalism that neatly nods to Thatcher’s greengrocer father and threads through the evening as an important if simplified reminder of the mark left on the UK economy by her government. It might lack a little in complexity, but its message remains depressingly relevant. It also offers some great work from Paul Cawley, Rachel De-lahay and James Cooney, including an unlikely but storming version of Will Smith’s ‘Summertime’ courtesy of De-lahay and Cooney.
Also in three parts, lending some structure to what might otherwise be an amorphous bunch of responses, is Kay Adshead’s I Am Sad You Are Dead Mrs T. This takes the form of a trio of eulogies to Thatcher, one from a bigoted ‘yoof’, one from a vile Tory-in-training and one from a resident of the underprivileged communities so neglected by Thatcher’s government. The first two monologues are packed with satirical barbs and the kind of “scroungers” rhetoric still nurtured by the current government, at times coming dangerously close to perpetuating the same stereotypes they seek to skewer, but it’s in the third that Adshead really brings out the fists. This final, deeply moving piece lands a devastating blow to the guts, leaving us in no doubt about just who has suffered and continues to suffer under Thatcher’s grim legacy.
Elsewhere, the responses are decidedly mixed. Dominic Cavendish’s dream-likeTrue Blue strands an unusually sympathetic Maggie on a desert island, clutching onto the departing tide of her deteriorating mind. It’s Thatcher’s individualism pushed to its isolated extreme, as the ultimate survivor finds herself completely alone, cast off from the society she insisted did not exist. Jimmy Osborne’s tight domestic focus on one couple turns the lens on the Falkland Islands, while My Dinnertimes With Clarence by Fraser Grace tackles education and supposed equality of opportunity through the tender friendship between a teacher and student. And never has the bonus culture of banking looked more repulsive than in Ben Worth’s testosterone-drenched Shirt and Tie, following two competitive city boys on a booze and cocaine-fuelled night out.
It’s canny programming to conclude this mixed bag of offerings with an absolute gem from Jon Brittain and Matthew Tedford. Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, led by a brilliant performance from Tedford dragged up in full wig and pearls, imagines a wrong turn in the 1980s leading to a glittering cabaret career and a brilliantly camp reconciliation with the gay community for a lady who suddenly is for turning. This is deliciously arch fun, cloaking its fangs in sequins and hotpants. And there should be some kind of prize for the line “where there are discos, may we bring harmonies”.
The overall impact of these collected responses, however, is uncertain. A question that often haunts fictional responses to recent events is the repeated chorus of “how soon is too soon?” In the case of a divisive public figure such as Thatcher, political legacy has to be available for discussion, but the question instead shifts to the quality of that debate. Immediacy is all very well, but there’s the risk that speaking too soon produces statements that aren’t worth hearing.
With a few incisive and provocative offerings, Theatre503 just about escapes that fate, but its impetus is worth pausing over. Is this simply a calculated attempt at topicality, or do these statements carry weight beyond the immediate aftermath of the event? Perhaps, even if most of these offerings will rapidly fade away, they have established a lively theatrical debate around a figure who continues to hold huge significance for politics today. In any case, it’s unlikely that theatre is done with the Iron Lady just yet.
Photo: Alistair Muir.