Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court
Moira Buffini's entertaining conceit lets us eavesdrop – a fly on the fourth wall – as Liz talks with Maggie. They met weekly over tea for eleven years.Of course, “no notes were taken”, so this is all “crass surmise” and speculation, but it does give a unique insight into the politics of the Thatcher years, as well as fabulous opportunities for the actors.
Director Lynne Foster fields a top team of six actors. Mrs T and HMQ have two each – like the Bennett twins in Lady in the Van – allowing for amusing meta-theatrical exchanges. The Thatchers especially are given to bickering. The men are relegated to minions, with two jobbing actors taking on a huge variety of walk-ons, from Hezza to the Gipper. They are impressively done by Mark Preston – Kenneth Kaunda and a convincing Nancy – and Kevin Stemp – Gerry Adams and both consorts. Preston's role provides political balance, reminding the younger audience member about the importance of, say, the miners' strike or Greenham Common.
“Where did she get that accent ?”, muses her Maj. Vocally, all four women are unnervingly accurate – Maggie's breathy sincerity, Liz's thin patrician. They are intended to be a younger and an older incarnation, I think, though it was not always apparent in this casting. Debbie Miles begins with an entirely convincing speech; Andrea Dalton is frighteningly forceful. Jane Smith is excellent as the grumpy, frumpy Queen, riffling through the Royal Ascot guide kindly provided by today's Times. And Laura Hill engagingly plays the somewhat younger – in her fifties – monarch when her hair was still resolutely dyed Chocolate Kiss.
There are occasional dips in energy – musing on jam, faffing with trolleys in black-out – but generally the pace is good, our attention captured by these six excellent performances.
I can remember when the Lord Chamberlain's Office strictly vetoed any stage depiction of the reigning monarch. Now of course the Queen is ubiquitous on the boards, from A Question of Attribution to The Audience. Buffini's piece is a welcome addition – not just a history lesson, and not simply knockabout satire. Both the Monarch and her eighth Prime Minister are often sympathetically portrayed; the Brighton Bombing and the death of Mountbatten genuinely moving moments.