Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Pip Utton takes on the role of the Iron Lady, in a live conversation with the audience.
A man in a dress, a device often used in comedy, whether it’s camp, panto or Mrs. Doubtfire. So one might presume that Pip Utton playing Maggie is a funny, satirical send up of the late Prime Minister. One would be quite mistaken. True to her self-proclaimed form, Maggie Thatcher isn’t here to be funny.
I have never seen Pip Utton before though I have heard tell the legend of the single day sell-out shows for Adolf, so I will admit my expectations were quite high. I don’t think I can adequately articulate how very far beyond my expectations this performance surpassed, but I shall try.
First of all, this is a one-man, one act show in three acts. I shall explain. Mr. Utton uses a framing device to pull back the curtain and give us a glimpse into the artistic world of Simon, whom I presumed to be a beautifully realized but fictitious actor playing the role of Lady Thatcher though upon further speculation, this reviewer suspects we got a very personal glimpse into the life of Mr. Utton himself, but a part of his artistry is the blurring of the lines between reality and theatricality. Five minute call, Simon refusing to go on, places.
As this slightly broken actor prepares, speaking occasionally to us, occasionally to the wig Mrs. Thatcher, we view him practicing the voice, beginning his transformation, imbuing life into the inanimate artifice which will transform him. It’s a bit of lightness, with the slightest undercurrent of a darker nature, a parallel of the divisiveness of Mrs. Thatcher’s own term in office, perhaps.
The final call, the lights dim, and almost ghost-like Margaret Thatcher appears from behind a podium, speaking to us as if from a film reel, so complete and accurate is the impersonation which Mr. Utton has achieved. This transformation alone is outstanding from an artistic standpoint, seeing the actor become the lady, with no sense of irony or satire, words pulled from various speeches made throughout her life, meant to stir the emotions and the sense of nationalism, mesmerizing to watch. The research that went into the script is noteworthy, wonderful soundbites and kernels gleaned from speeches throughout her career carefully interwoven to bring to life this iconic figure. What happens next though, left me utterly speechless, taking the art form out of the realm of simple, beautiful theatre into, well, I don’t seem to have the words.
Pip Utton the actor, Simon the Actor, Margaret Thatcher the Icon all seemed to leave the room. Putting aside her prepared speech, Mrs. Thatcher, the flesh and blood human brought up the lights for a fireside chat (sans the fire but you get the drift). The mannerisms, the voice, the appearance, the immense and detailed research were all strikingly noteworthy but what I, as an actor, couldn’t believe I was seeing was the heart. The heart of Mrs. Thatcher, the essence. Answering questions from the audience from politics to poetry, to her “wicked” lack of humour, she was ever present, entirely consistent, immensely funny and absolutely real.
There was something movingly cathartic which happened in that room; an opportunity to ask the questions about decisions so polarizing as to make her one of the most beloved and despised of all Prime Ministers. The amount of research required to hold an audience and the level of respect with which she was portrayed, without agenda, without justification but with an earnestness and intensity which could only be embodied by a true master of the craft. As each performance would differ dependent on the questions asked this reviewer has no fear of giving the show away by relating the moment for me in which this outstanding show became spectacular. When asked, “If you could have dinner with one person whom you’ve met, who would it be?” she replied, “Without hesitation, Indira Ghandi.” And she went on to tell us why; of her great admiration for the woman and her work, of the dinner which they had shared and the love and authenticity in Mrs. Thatcher’s face, voice and entire form, well, you simply can’t fake that. It was transformative.
I’ve not even touched upon Act Three, and I shan’t in this review. Let us simply say, we are left with an even greater understanding of the impact of this show and this lady upon the actor. In the expert hands of Pip Utton, she is icon, conscience, stalwart and we are better for knowing her humanity, even if one never forgives her politics. Bravo Mr. Utton.