James Graham’s new play Little Madam starts as a child’s game and ends up as a shockingly visceral theatrical kangaroo court. The "little madam" in question, you see, is one Margaret Hilda Roberts, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham.
As the play opens, Margaret has been sent to her room for insulting her older sister’s baking, and is not allowed to come down until she has admitted she was wrong and apologised to everyone. There is a sense that this is also the playwright’s position. From the off, there are benefit-of-hindsight jokes at Mrs T.’s expense. “I’m not apologising, I was right. It’s not that I’m insist on being right, it’s just that everyone else is wrong” says the twelve-year-old Margaret (I paraphrase, but you get the idea).
That, at least, is the initial impression. While the writing is never less than sparky, for the first few minutes one does worry whether the next two and a half-plus hours (including interval) are going to simply poke fun at a twelve year old girl for her future self’s actions. Graham soon puts us at our ease. No sooner has her father has stormed out of the room in disgust at his offspring’s impertinence than Margaret is reaching inside her toy chest (or Cabinet?) for her favourite teddy. She sits it on the bed and talks to it in the earnest manner of a child that expects an answer before beginning her chores – at which point an arm from under the bed reaches out, takes the bear and the bear is magically transformed into a balding, grey-haired man in his late middle-age sitting on the bed, wearing teddy bear ears and bow-tie. No straightforward biographical play, this!
All at once an assortment of Margaret’s other teddies and dolls have popped out of wardrobes, chests and drawers and the child is surrounded with a sort of toy Cabinet. It is through the games that she plays with her toys that scenes from her future are played out. We see her headmistress’s sneering at her Oxford ambitions, a vision of an alienated Conservative girl at university, and her first meeting with Dennis – the man who was to supply her with the iconic surname. Gradually through these scenes we see a more sympathetic version of Margaret emerge. Yes, there is still the odd gag about determination or iron will, but in the main we are made to see a human, at times fragile, creature. Her meeting with Dennis is particularly touching. Played as a kind of Four Weddings and a Funeral celebration of English reticence. The point later when Dennis asks her to marry him is incredibly sweet – so much so that a couple a few rows in front of me actually snuggled into each other as couples are wont to do when watching romantic scenes.
By the interval one is more than a little bamboozled. Has Graham brought so thoroughly into historical inevitability and the rehabilitation of the Thatcher reputation of the 16 years since she was hounded from office that he can do no more than paint what is a critical but essentially favourable portrait? There is a nagging sense that, while there are jokes at the Iron Lady’s expense, there is no serious or intelligent opposition to her ideas being made. Many of her ideals start to sound oddly laudable – oddly, at least, in the context of a broadly left-wing fringe theatre on a Friday night. There's no way the play would have been allowed to get this far, had it even been staged, during the Eighties.
It is in the second half that things start to kick off. Margaret and her toys giddily play out the privatisation of Britain’s state-controlled industries, and then all at once she is catapulted back to 1984 and the Brighton bombing. You know it’s coming, and it still makes you jump out of your skin. From here, things go from bad to worse. There is a fascinating sequence in which the Irish republican hunger striker and MP Bobby Sands appears at the window of the twelve-year-old Margaret’s room. She has been sent to bed without any supper and he is starving himself to death. A weird kind of equivalence is drawn between the two, which could be gravely misjudged. Instead serves to point at the sheer bloody-minded, deeply principled stubbornness that characterised both sides in the conflict. By presenting Margaret as a stubborn child Graham completely humanises her defiance in the face of violence, without at all flinching from demonstrating its effects. That Sands is played by the actor who also plays her father simply introduces a further level of complexity into this already intricate matrix.
However, it is the miner’s strike that Mr Graham has been building up to. The playwright’s biography casually notes that Graham “grew up in the mining community of Mansfield” – and, by God, the absolute rage that suddenly erupts on the stage is electrifying. Yet, even here, in spite of a tangible, almost quivering fury, Margaret Huilda Roberts is allowed a defence. And a cogent one. It is an impasse. Unstoppable force meeting immovable object. The sheer strangeness of mining as a profession is discussed – the fact that it was brutal, hard and often fatal, is admitted to and it is weighed against the suffering that these communities endured when it was taken away. And there isn’t an answer given. Simply an insoluble void.
The coda to this astonishing passage - the end of the play - is both clever, funny and almost unbearably cute (I won’t spoil the surprise – suffice it to say that the twee control gets cranked up to eleven, and that I have never heard so many people making whimpering “aww” noises in a theatre).
Kate Wasserberg’s production is broadly sympathetic to the demands of the play, is well served by an accomplished cast and, crucially, largely manages to maintain an engaging theatricality throughout. Rather than allowing Graham’s script to slide into becoming a fatally episodic biopic-type narrative the production continually plays with the idea that everything on stage is taking place within the imagination of a twelve-year-old girl and that the characters are being played by enormous animated toys. As a result what becomes particularly striking about Catherine Skinner’s excellent performance as Margaret is the way that her voice fluctuates through between the girlish northern accent of her youth and the ever-deepening strident tones of Thatcher's premiership.
While Graham may not have any natural sympathy for Thatcher, the Prime Minister, he displays a deeply humane compassion for Margaret Roberts. It would be simplistic to suggest that he merely blames her father’s example for Thatcher’s ideological drive, although the seeds of her ethos are made quite explicit. Instead, perhaps even unintentionally, his play traces a quite tragic trajectory of a woman whom history forced to make enormous personal sacrifices for – as she saw it – the good of the country. Moreover, while the play may table objections to the form that this “good” took, it does not advance any serious alternatives. As a result we are left with a strange sense of Thatcher having been made a scapegoat for a necessary, almost fatalistically inevitable, series of contentious but ultimately successful radical reforms, albeit at an acknowledged, unacceptable human cost.
Meanwhile, my latest Guardian blog post – with appropriately hair-raising sub-editor-supplied headline – can be found here.