Handbagged, Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2015.
This was a last minute booking for me and a convenient matinee at the theatre opposite where I work meant I could take a gamble on this. I wasn't sure that I needed to see another play about the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Minister - after all it wasn't that long since I'd seen the NT Live broadcast of The Audience.
The idea is the same in many ways, no one actually knows what went on when the Queen and Margaret Thatcher but Buffini uses real speeches and her imagination to make a believable play.
In some ways the story telling is quite conventional - we start the day after Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979 and finish when she resigned in 1990. That is where convention stops. The play is very hard to explain without making it sound incomprehensible, pretentious and like a long Spitting Image episode and it really is none of those things.
Essentially we have the Queen and Margaret Thatcher in older age looking back on the story, while another two actresses play the Queen and Margaret Thatcher during the 11 years of her rule. There are also two male characters who play a further 27 parts between them to move the plot along. The older ladies interject and interact with their younger selves, and older Queen repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience... see it sounds complicated and dreadful!
It wasn't at all, it was genuinely funny and at times shocking and moving. I was a young teenager in 1990 when Thatcher resigned but I could remember 90% of the historical facts that were covered in the play, but those that I didn't recognise were explained in such a way that if it all became a bit 'Basil Exposition' then this was also referenced by the cast. Even in a big theatre like Norwich the nuance and expression came through and at times I did think I was watching the real people not actors - impressive seeing as there were two of them on stage at all times.
My discomfort with this play didn't come from the style or the acting but rather from the audience. The writing of the play is non-judgemental and as I said earlier a lot of the actual lines come from real speeches just altered slightly to fit the stage representations. Mrs Thatcher was a decisive figure in politics and very far to the right of where my own political belief is, the audience I shared this play with seemed to be, how shall we say..., more appreciative of her stance than I was. Lines that I found shocking received laughter and applause and on the occasions when characters made comments more in line with my views the audience were stony silent or making their displeasure known. It made for an interesting afternoon I suppose!
After the performance three of the cast held a q&a session and their insights in to the political mixes of the audiences in various locations was great fun to hear, as were there anecdotes about accidentally staying in role away from the stage!
I wasn't expecting much from my afternoon and I was pleasantly surprised that a play so similar to another recent hit could add to the story and engage and amuse me so thoroughly. I may avoid weekday matinees for political plays in Norwich however!