BWW Interview: Jon Brittain Talks MARGARET THATCHER QUEEN OF SOHO at Udderbelly Festival
Jon Brittain and Matt Tedford's MARGARET THATCHER QUEEN OF SOHO, which gives the Iron Lady a Soho awakening on the eve of the Section 28 vote, has had a remarkable evolution over the past few years. From 10-minute short at Theatre503 to fully-fledged cabaret-cum-theatre show, it's enjoyed sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Festival, Brighton Comedy Festival and Leicester Square Theatre, and now has three dates at the South Bank's Udderbelly Festival as part of a national tour. Jon talks mixing styles, gay rights and the ongoing process of development.
What was the original inspiration for the show?
Honestly? Matt Tedford turned up to a Halloween party at my flat in 2012 dressed as Margaret Thatcher and doing an uncanny impression. We both thought it would be really fun to do something with the character but sort of forgot about it...that is, until a few months later she died and Theatre503 asked me if I wanted to write a short play about her for their ThatcherWrite Festival. I messaged Matt and asked him if he wanted to do it - and luckily he did. As we started to talk about Maggie we honed in on the fact that she has so many of the typical attributes of a gay icon, but none of the love due to her questionable record on gay rights. As a result, we started to imagine what life would have been liked if she'd been on the other side of the argument - and, naturally, we decided to stage that story as a big gay cabaret.
It's obviously a very unusual approach to a much-portrayed figure - was that deliberate?
I figured that ThatcherWrite would have a lot of quite serious plays about Margaret Thatcher. I thought it would be really funny to go on at the end, have a drumroll and someone announce: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show, the idol of millions, Maaaaaargaret Thatcher!", and have Matt come out and sing a camp classic like "Y.M.C.A.". I felt by doing that the audience would be quite off-balance, so that when we actually got round to what we were trying to say, they wouldn't be expecting any serious points. When we turned the show into a full-length piece we took the same approach and tried to frame it as a frivolous comedy. That way, all the stuff about gay rights and Section 28 is a nice bonus on top of the laughs.
Did you ever think of doing it as pure theatre, or comedy, or cabaret? What's the benefit of that combination of styles, especially when addressing issues like gay rights?
Because it started as a short we had a nice opportunity to try out the tone before committing to making it a full-length. We flirted with making it a bit more serious, and then a bit more bizarre - at one point it was going to end with Maggie discovering the Tory front bench were aliens. Ultimately, once we'd decided to explore the origins of Section 28, what we found worked was committing to a solid plot which made sense and then allowing the comedy and cabaret elements to come out of that, rather than stringing together some sketches. In terms of subject matter, I am very happy to investigate a serious issue through comedy - I'm working on a show at the moment called A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), which is probably one of the funniest things I've written but that is also about depression. I think as long as you're clear about what questions you're asking of an audience and why you're asking them, you can use any genres, styles or techniques to do it.
How much collaboration was there, and how did your process differ from working on a straight play like Rotterdam?
Well, the main difference between those two shows was resources. On Rotterdam, I had a director, producer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, a set designer etc. On Maggie, those jobs were all done by me, Aine Flanagan, the producer, and Matt. Alongside the two guys who play the backing dancers, we pretty much made the original show on our own. So whereas on Rotterdam I delivered a script, sat in on a bunch of rehearsals, gave notes to the director, and then left them to get on with it, on Maggie, I was involved at every stage and still go to most performances. The team's grown over the years and now we have a lot of people to do the jobs we once did ourselves, but it's a very homemade show and I think it still has that feel. Because I still go to shows for Maggie, I throw in new jokes and tinker. It's never done - whereas Rotterdam, I'm happier to call that finished.
Was a certain level of historical accuracy important to you?
Yes and no. There are lots of references in the show that no one but me and Matt will know are there. We wanted there to be enough accuracy and understanding of the period that if you'd lived through it you'd know we'd done our homework. But at the same time, we felt more bound to make it a good story than we did to make it slavishly accurate. We didn't want the show to be one long demonstration of how clever we were. So we do play fast and loose with a lot of things - not least in how we portray Jill Knight (she's a panto villain) and Peter Tatchell (basically we make him Ray Winstone). Our excuse is that Maggie has written it herself and so therefore has chosen to change loads of things based on her own prejudices.
Did you want a 'shock' factor? And is that hard to gauge when you have diverse audiences?
When you consider that Steve Nallon has been playing Thatcher on stage and TV for nearly 40 years, I don't think the idea of a drag Maggie is that shocking anymore. But we do have a lot of near-the-knuckle jokes in the show - especially one about what Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt got up to on VE Day - but, to quote Kenny Everett, it's all done in the best possible taste. I think we create a context for those jokes so the audience know that if we do say something shocking, it's for a reason.
What are some of your favourite lines/moments in the show?
I'll never tire of watching Peter Tatchell punching out Dame Jill Knight, then snogging Margaret Thatcher. I love watching the two backing dancers - Ed Yelland and Nico Lennon. It's easy to just focus on Matt as Maggie, but the two boys work so hard and still discover new jokes all the time. We have a scene where Maggie imagines what life would be like if we encouraged homosexuality in schools, and they play a pair of schoolboys who are being given...well, quite a graphic education. At the end of the scene there's a visual joke that they came up with only a few months ago, which really makes me laugh. Other than that, the line I always get congratulated for is "Where there are discos, may we bring harmony!" Annoyingly, I didn't write it - that was Matt.
How much has the piece developed over the years? Do you respond to contemporary events at all?
I think it's just got funnier. We still try to add jokes in and find new things in old scenes. Best of all is when something happens in the news that we can reference in a bit of the show that might not have been funny before. One of the biggest laughs we've ever had is for a joke about Dolce and Gabbana the day after they made comments about gay marriage. In the last year we've added a Jeremy Corbyn joke, and one about PigGate. Last summer we added a Ted Heath joke after the allegations about him, but we had to drop it after a few months - everyone had forgotten about them!
How do you think it'll work at Udderbelly?
I love Udderbelly. I first went to the Edinburgh Fringe 10 years ago, and several of the shows I still remember from that year - Talk Radio, Into the Hoods and Stewart Lee - were in that venue. Since then I've loved watching stuff like Frisky and Mannish and Austentatious in it. It's such a great space, and there's a thrill about going to watch something in a big upside down cow. I can't wait. I feel like our show changes depending on the venue. Sometimes it can be a bit more subdued in more traditional theatre spaces. Udderbelly has a bit more of a comedy/cabaret/festival feel to it, so hopefully the shows should be a bit more raucous.
Do you think we're becoming more relaxed in Britain about merging genres/venues/forms etc.? Do you feel freedom as a writer to mix and match?
I've never felt that constrained as a writer to keep things straight. Rotterdam was I think my sixth play, but it was the first naturalistic, linear one that I'd written. I like mixing things up. I do quite a lot of work with comedians and it just makes sense to apply some of the lessons I've learned from them to my own work. Definitely there is a trend now of theatre-makers who are really keen to mix up styles and genres - two of my favourites are Ali McDowall and Caroline Horton - but I don't know if it's necessarily a new thing. When I was a teenager I read a lot of Dario Fo, thanks to an enthusiastic teacher, and it had a big impact. When I read it back now I see that nearly everything I am trying to do by mixing theatre and comedy, he already did decades ago. I just feel like you want to thrill an audience with how a story is told as well as what the story is. There are so many possibilities within the theatrical art form - why not give them all a try?
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho is at Udderbelly Festival on South Bank on April 21, May 19 and July 15. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.udderbelly.co.uk/whats-on/margaret-thatcher-queen-of-soho
For full tour dates, visit http://offthekerb.co.uk/news/spring-tour-for-margaret-thatcher-queen-of-soho/
A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) will be on at the New Diorama Theatre on April 24-25. For more information and tickets, visit http://newdiorama.com/whats-on/super-happy-story-about-feeling-super-sad