On our first foray to the Edinburgh fringe last summer we saw some spellbinding productions. Riveting drama, glamorous revue, exciting dance – but nothing funnier than Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, late at night under a circus big top. So when the Divine Diva got resurrected for another hoorah week at the Leicester Square Theatre, we couldn’t resist re-dipping our toes into the seedy world of 1980s Soho. We also knew that our friends my Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters would find it irresistible, as they have been leftie agitators since they were connected to the placenta. Thus it was that the four of us snuck downstairs into that vibrant little arty hub that is the Leicester Square Theatre to see a slightly extended version of the show that won this year’s Chrisparkle Award for Best Entertainment – Edinburgh (I know, catchy category.)
The time – the late 80s, the place – Westminster. The Beloved Margaret is hanging on to her third term as PM but trouble’s brewing. What can she do to firm up her flagging popularity? She’s already closed the mines; she’s already sunk the Belgrano. Options are running out. Enter Jill Knight (boo, hiss) with her nose deftly sniffing out dirt like a truffle-hunting pig as she exposes the book “Jenny lives with Eric and Martin”, a hideous piece of homosexual propaganda designed to deprave and corrupt children everywhere (this is me being satirical, by the way). With the threat of a revolt from her back benchers, Maggie sees it is right and just to support Section 28 of the Local Government Act and therefore make it illegal for such filth to be liberally promoted in our schools. But this causes the homosexuals to be revolting too, and she cannot decide what to do. She turns to the spirit of Winston Churchill only to discover that even he has turned into a raving queen. Desperate, on the streets, in search of solace and enlightenment, she finds herself in deepest darkest Soho, where a couple of friendly chaps entice her into a gay bar where she finally sees the light. Section 28 is no more, she happily hands over the reins of the country to that nice Mr Kinnock and she devotes her life to disco. And it’s all, comme on dit, Absolutely Fabulous.
The show is an unashamed riot from start to finish. The humour comes from so many sources, all hitting you at the same time that you hardly have time to take stock of each situation. Firstly, you have to suspend disbelief that the Ballsy Baroness is still with us (and that daughter Carol is operating the lights). Then you have to accept the preposterous suggestion that the Iron Lady could actually immerse herself in camp, and give herself over to the decadence of the gay Soho scene. There’s enormous fun spotting the many clever Thatcherite references throughout (like the milk moment); it plays with time – Ian McKellen’s Gandalf’s surprise intervention being a good example; it re-writes all our childhoods with a gay episode of Grange Hill and redefines other real-life characters (turning Peter Tatchell into a cross between Johnny Rotten and Bob Hoskins). To add to the cabaret element, it incorporates many of the favourite disco and New Romantic hits of the era, and the Blessed Margaret treats us to her version of each of the songs, giving it some wellie in her delivery. John Brittain and Matt Tedford’s script is sardined with ludicrous wit and genuine heart, and the fourth wall is broken so many times you’d think Miley Cyrus had got to it first with her wrecking ball. And, above all, you have one of the most delightful parody characterisations of a female Prime Minister you could imagine.
Matt Tedford assumes so many of Thatcher’s idiosyncrasies so accurately and indeed subtly – for what is in no way a subtle show – contributing enormously to what I think is of the best comic performances I’ve ever seen. The stoop, the condescending manner, the patronising voice, the manipulative use of pauses – not to mention the evil glare – are all done to perfection. It’s not a traditional impersonation in the Rory Bremner/Mike Yarwood tradition (in fact wasn’t it Janet Brown who got closest to the traditional who do you do of Thatcher?) because Mr Tedford is way too young (and frankly too jovial) to achieve that, but more of an askance suggestion of what the Conniving Chemist could have been like if only she’d been born with a silver glitterball in her mouth. Mr Tedford’s Maggie sings like she’s delivering a speech (“Don’t you want me, baby?” “You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal”, “good authors too who once knew better words now only use four-letter words” – as she opens a book with the word “TITS” emblazoned on the middle pages – I told you it wasn’t subtle).
He’s also exceptional in his handling of the audience (ooh matron), swiftly putting down any “contributions” with a scornful look. Early on in last night’s show someone in the front row made a comment which didn’t get many laughs (I didn’t quite hear it myself) which he squished viciously. Near the end of the show, Maggie proclaims “there’s only one place for me now” at which someone shouted “in the cemetery!” to much hilarity from the audience; which prompted Mrs (or should that be Mr) T to return to that first heckler with a patronising “you see, that’s the way you do it, dear”. Mr Tedford has the rare ability to engage the audience completely and take us along with a sheer flight of fantasy, and it’s great to see a master at work. To add to the downright fun of it all, he’s gamely assisted by Nico Lennon and Ed Yelland as his supporting company, playing something like 25 roles between them, totally over-the-top in their characterisations and throwing themselves into very athletic and physical comedy, as well as embodying the moustachioed gay equivalent of Pan’s People for the disco numbers.
The audience absolutely loved it, reacting enthusiastically, almost panto-like, during many sequences and giving a much deserved standing ovation at the end. There are only two more nights for this show at the Leicester Square Theatre, but surely this is not the end of Maggie Queen of Soho. It was definitely the right decision to see it again, and I only hope she continues to grace our stages in the near future. Anarchic fantasy at its best!
P.S. Can I recommend Maggie’s youtube video of Top Ten Tips to being a Prime Minister? It’s a hoot!