Handbag review – sparks fly at Queen’s audiences with the Iron Lady | Theater
IIt is disconcerting to see a theatrical version of Queen Elizabeth on stage when the late monarch is in state. Two versions, in fact, because Moira Buffini’s 2013 play about Margaret Thatcher’s weekly meetings with the Queen features split personalities – older and younger. Perhaps that’s why director Indhu Rubasingham takes the stage to report on the timing of the play and invite a minute’s silence before the satire begins.
Nearly a decade later, it’s still a smart, funny, and charming political comedy, perhaps a little too pushed in its vanity, with four standout performances that nearly eclipse the script itself.
Marion Bailey and Abigail Cruttenden perfect the Queen’s vowels and smiles; Thatcher’s features are accompanied by fantastic comedic timing from Kate Fahy and Naomi Frederick, who go from flirtatious to faceless intransigence.
Where Peter Morgan’s The Audience imagines privately forged conversations between the Queen and a long line of PMs, Buffini focuses on that unique relationship, renowned for its liveliness, unfolding over Thatcher’s 11 years in power.
It looks and sounds like a high-quality episode of Dead Ringers in the first half, though this show would be lucky to have a cast of that caliber. It seems progressively less amusing, revealing the dark heart of Thatcherism, forensic, through her politics: She’s not racist, she claims, as we hear her admiration for Enoch Powell and his stance against sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa.
The jokes, for the most part, are about the Prime Minister rather than the Queen and there’s a sweet take on the monarch, who looks like a campaigner against social inequality (so much so that Thatcher suspects her of being a socialist) , which is rather out of place for a figurehead who champions wealth inequality and class privilege. Thatcher, at least, reminds her of the tax-free existence she enjoys as head of state.
The set design by Richard Kent is an elegantly decorative white canvas resembling an architectural cat’s cradle to suggest a game of cat and mouse. This fits well with Buffini’s meta-theatrical framing. Two actors (Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant, as brilliant as the leads) consciously double and triple roles, from Michael Heseltine and Ronald Reagan (Cant, both fabulous) to Powell (Andrews, a black actor who refuses to play him) and Nancy Reagan (Andrews again, incredibly funny). The two fight to interpret Neil Kinnock. Meta-theatricality brings a discussion of contested history and which stories Thatcher chooses to dramatize or sweep under the rug, but it seems too briefly and schematically pointed out.
Beyond impersonations and jokes, the production speaks loudly about its intention to educate a new, younger generation about Thatcher’s legacy. For those of us who lived through it, those lessons are familiar, though we see parallels with now in the crushing of protests and the jingoist spin on Britishness.
There are ironies too, including the flamboyant curtsey the Iron Lady performs (as opposed to Liz Truss’ pose?). The scariest and most exhilarating moment comes in Kinnock’s “I’m warning you…” speech before Thatcher’s re-election who foresees, with such clear-eyed foreknowledge, where we might end up; the play is worth the detour just for this speech. This points to a puzzling layer beyond the play itself, which reminds us of where the Conservative Party is at and how thatcher’s party, described as so toxic at the time, had yet to fall.