It is unnerving to see a theatrical version of Queen Elizabeth on stage when the late monarch lies in state. Two versions, in fact, because Moira Buffini’s 2013 play about Margaret Thatcher’s weekly meetings with the Queen features split selves – older and younger. That is maybe why director Indhu Rubasingham takes to the stage to account for the timing of the play and invite a minute’s silence before the satire commences.
Almost a decade on this is still a clever, funny and charming political comedy, perhaps a little overstretched in its conceit, with four exceptional performances that almost upstage the script itself.
Marion Bailey and Abigail Cruttenden perfect the Queen’s vowels and smiles; Thatcher’s traits come with fantastic comic timing by Kate Fahy and Naomi Frederick, who switch from flirtiness to blank-faced intransigency.
Where Peter Morgan’s The Audience imagines conversations forged in private between the Queen and a long line of PMs, Buffini concentrates on this single relationship, rumoured for its bristliness, unfurling across Thatcher’s 11 years in power.
It looks and sounds like a high grade episode of Dead Ringers in the first half, though that show would be lucky to have a cast of this calibre. It gradually feels less larky, revealing the dark heart of Thatcherism, forensically, through her policies: she is not a racist, she claims, as we hear her admiration for Enoch Powell and her stand against sanctions for apartheid-era South Africa.
The jokes, for the main, are on the prime minister rather than the Queen and there is a soft focus take on the monarch, who sounds like a campaigner against social inequality (so much so that Thatcher suspects her of being a socialist), which is rather out of character for a figurehead who upholds wealth inequalities and class privilege. Thatcher, at least, reminds her of the tax-free existence she enjoys as head of state.
Richard Kent’s stage design is an elegantly decorative white canvas resembling an architectural cat’s cradle to suggest a game of cat and mouse. It sits well with Buffini’s meta-theatrical framing. Two actors (Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant, as brilliant as the leads) self-consciously double and treble up on parts, from Michael Heseltine and Ronald Reagan (Cant, both fabulous) to Powell (Andrews, a Black actor who refuses to play him) and Nancy Reagan (Andrews again, shockingly funny). Both fight to perform Neil Kinnock. The meta-theatricality brings a discussion on contested history and what stories Thatcher chooses to dramatise or sweep under the carpet, but this feels too briefly and schematically flagged up.
Beyond the impersonations and jokes, the production speaks aloud its intention to educate a new young generation about Thatcher’s legacy. For those of us who lived through it, these lessons are familiar, although we see some parallels to now in the crushing of protests and the jingoistic spin on Britishness.
There are ironies too, including the flamboyant curtsy the Iron Lady performs (as opposed to Liz Truss’s pose?). The most chilling, and exhilarating, moment comes in Kinnock’s “I warn you …” speech before Thatcher’s re-election which foresees, with such clear-eyed prescience, where we might end up; the play is worth seeing for that speech alone. It points to a discombobulating layer beyond the play itself, which draws our mind to where the Conservative party is now and just how far Thatcher’s party, branded so toxic then, had yet to fall.
At the Kiln theatre, London, until 29 October.