Matt Tedford’s drag incarnation as Margaret Thatcher started life as a simple Halloween joke but has since taken on a bit of a life of her own, winning him Best Male Performer at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. James T Harding quizzes Matt about his Fringe show Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, the not-so-true story of how Margaret Thatcher got lost in Soho one dark, rainy night, became a cabaret sensation, and single-handedly defeated Section 28 before it is passed by parliament.
It's still the original costume that I wear.
Matt’s version of the Iron Lady began as a costume for his friend Jon Brittain’s Halloween party. It was a year before Thatcher died. ‘Having never dressed as a woman in my life, the concept of Margaret Thatcher really appealed to me. I took a pint of milk around with me for the whole party going, “I've brought my own, dear. I've brought my own.”’
The pair didn’t think any more about it until Jon was approached by Theatre503 to write a 15-minute sketch for their Thatcherwrite night in 2013. Jon realised he already had his perfect Thatcher. ‘It's still the original costume that I wear.’
‘We sat down in the Theatre503 bar downstairs and John said, “You think about Thatcher as an individual: her androgynous voice, the power dressing. She’s a strong independent woman with all the makings of a gay icon, but none of the love. Let’s make her into the gay icon we hope she could be!”’
The mission then, was to create an alternative universe in which Thatcher is loved by the left. ‘If she’d given up politics and made a disco album we think everyone would like her.
‘There's a lot of Thatcher bashing. It's very easy to do but it doesn't really fulfill: everybody hates Thatcher. We want you to like Margaret. In a very weird sort of way I think people sometimes find very offensive: the idea that Thatcher could be a gay icon - or just likeable. I've had a few people coming up to me saying, “You've made me like Margaret Thatcher and I really hate you for that.”’
The 15-minute sketch, which now forms the Soho section of the show, was performed for a week at Theatre503 and created such a buzz that Matt and Jon were approached to turn it into an hour-long fringe show. ‘We co-write very well. Jon is very much a writer. He stays up all night and bashes out scenes. I look at it more from a performance point of view.
‘A lot of the show came about by just workshopping stuff. Some of the monologues and the joke jokes we did on the circuit, cabaret bars that sort of thing. As Maggie I'd do 10-minutes sets and we’d dissect what worked and what didn’t.'
End flashback. Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho has now been touring for nearly two years, and in all that time they’ve only ever had to refund one ticket. (It was the fourth time the woman in question had come to see the show and she was so drunk she was sick into someone else's’ handbag. Maggie thought it best she have an early night and had a word with the box office.)
‘Iain Dale came to the show the other day. He said he'd like to book us for the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. It would be interesting to see how the audience there would take it...
‘We’ve had a lot of people in to see the show that knew Thatcher. We’ve had the nurses who looked after her in her waning years. We've had one of her bodyguards. We've had quite a few friends and family. People from all over the political spectrum come to the show - Christmas parties from the House of Lords - and they always say they enjoy themselves.’
So does Matt think Maggie herself would enjoy the show? ‘I don't think she'd understand the joke’. And then, in character, ‘No, I've never did that. You've got it all wrong, all wrong.’
In conversation, Matt often slips into character as Baroness Thatcher - fortunately I don’t take milk in my coffee.
Sometimes Matt uses the character for comic effect, but sometimes it’s more absent-minded than anything else. He confides that he’s a little miffed that, while he’s often invited to premieres, galas, pride marches and the like, it’s always in character as Maggie. He’s met many politicos including Jeremy Corbyn and even Peter Tatchell that way, and he’s convinced none of them would recognise him in real life.
At the end of each performance, Maggie invites the audience to come out on the town with her - she’s well-know at CC Blooms, which is one of the gay bars in Edinburgh. ‘I hardly ever buy a drink. You can get away with anything dressed as Thatcher.’
He confirms that, yes, he does get groupies. ‘We’ve got a little bit of a cult following. People come back three or four times. Sometimes five.’
But life with the black handbag isn’t all free drinks and celebrity sightings. ‘I walk the streets of Edinburgh as Margaret Thatcher and it's quite dangerous sometimes. Occasionally people forget the joke, that it's a man in drag. Last year, I got kicked in the street. Yesterday, there was a guy shouting “You raped our country.” There's just so much anger against her.’
The show will continue to tour after the Fringe is over, and the team are developing an 80s-style game show (‘contestants compete for their unemployment cheque’) presented by Mags, but for now Matt is looking forward to taking a few weeks as himself after the Fringe. He’s planning to take a break from shaving and let his beard grow out a bit.
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho is at 9pm every night at Assembly: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/margaret-thatch...
The show will have a special spectacular 100th performance (with a surprise ending) on Thursday the 27th at midnight: https://www.assemblyfestival.com/event/95/
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic