Pip Utton: Playing Maggie

Margaret Thatcher was – still is, two years after her death – a divisive figure, loved and hated in equal measure. This aspect of her is a repeated theme in Pip Utton’s new show, in which he plays an actor who, in turn, is playing “the Iron Lady”. It’s found in the letters from audience members whose love or hatred of “That Woman” were confirmed by watching the same show; in “her” insistence that only divisive Prime Ministers have ever achieved anything. It’s also sensed in the relationship between this laboured actor on stage and his off-stage brother, who more than once asks: “Have you forgotten what she did to dad?”

The problem with showing both sides of a divisive figure like Thatcher is that you can end up feeling absolutely like the Lib-Dems: with a paralysing neutrality arguably not appropriate to the woman’s legacy.

The format of this show is simple enough; we’re first introduced to the actor, preparing for another Thatcher show, as he reluctantly gets into costume – accepting that, given that she played the role of Prime Minister for 11 years, he can surely do it for 30 minutes. Then we get the start of the show, with the resurrected Thatcher standing at a podium reading from a well-defined script, and getting from this real audience the rumbustious applause she demands. Finally, it’s back to the actor again, conflicted over the consequences of Thatcher’s premiership – and, in particular, her battle with the National Union of Mineworkers – on himself and his mining family.

What is somewhat remarkable is the section in-between, when “Thatcher” steps from behind the podium and microphone and starts taking questions from the audience – with, presumably, no firm idea of what’s likely to be coming. Utton remains consistently in character, discounting the Liberal Democrats for their “middle of the road” consensual politics, that gets them knocked down from either side, and not afraid to delay answering another with the classic politician’s response: “That’s a very good question. I’m very glad you asked that. Next!”

From “her” insistence that men “are not a reasoned or reasoning sex” to a belief that governments are elected to govern and lead, not hold referendums all the time, it’s clear that Utton has definitely read up on Thatcher’s personal and political life, both as Prime Minister and after she stepped back from power. It’s genuinely not that difficult to believe that the Ghost of Thatcher is once again with us, even if the facial likeness is not; the shame, however, is that this slightly unbalances the show, since the actor we meet at the start and the end feels roughly sketched in comparison, little more than a framing device for the Thatcher Q&A.

Nor is this particularly biting satire; yes, this supposed Ghost of Thatcher praises Nigel Farage for having a spine – “but it doesn’t reach his brain” – while warning of the dangerous emotions UKIP is encouraging, but the problem with showing both sides of a divisive figure like Thatcher is that you can end up feeling absolutely like the Lib-Dems: with a paralysing neutrality arguably not appropriate to the woman’s legacy. 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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Performances

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The Blurb

Not merely a reflection on how to portray this lady but a live audience with Margaret Thatcher. Pip Utton is the Iron Lady! Saviour or witch? Love her or hate her? Not for Pip to decide, only to portray. She divided the nation like no other politician. Hear her philosophies, her inspiration and her logic. Known throughout the world for spellbinding portrayals of Adolf, Churchill, Dickens, Chaplin, Hancock and many others, Maggie is probably Pip’s greatest challenge yet. Pip not only becomes Margaret Thatcher but risks taking audience questions, and answering them as Maggie! www.pip-utton.co.uk

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