Michael Portillo - History lessons

Theatre - Real issues replace soundbites as the Iron Lady returns, writes Michael Portillo

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Once you have seen Thatcher: the musical, the main surprise is that this epic life was not brought to the stage before now. The story of a grocer's daughter from Grantham who clawed and later handbagged her way through Oxford, the House of Commons and the male establishment to become prime minister and a global phenomenon, only to be assassinated by her cabinet colleagues, combines aspects of Cinderella, Mary Poppins and Julius Caesar.

Perhaps time had to pass before this theatrical venture could be attempted. For half the audience (gathered for the opening night at the Warwick Arts Centre, at the heart of the university, and paying just £5 for a seat), the event carried no emotion. Maybe they were there to earn credits for their postwar British history course.

Dave Nellist, now a councillor for St Michael's ward in Coventry but once a snarling Militant Labour MP, was at the show and greeted me with a friendly smile, a facial expression that I did not associate with him. Toothless relics of a bygone conflict, he and I were both there as curiosity theatre critics. After the curtain fell someone raised a yell of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie" and the old-timers in the audience searched in their memories and produced a wheezy "Out! Out! Out!", but they might as well have been singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". It all seems that long ago.

A piece called Thatcher: the musical can hardly be anything other than a satire. But the performer/devisers who worked it up in the studio and the dramaturge Kate Hale have taken great care with their source material, using Margaret Thatcher's own words from speeches, broadcasts and her autobiography. The effect is at times closer to a documentary than a musical.

Whatever satirical intentions the authors had, Thatcher steals the show. Well, she would, wouldn't she? At the time we did not think oratory one of her greatest strengths. But now her words fly out from the stage and grab you, because what she said meant something. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels." The impact is shocking, because in the years since Thatcher we have heard only the meaningless soundbite.

Nine women provide the ensemble, and all (including, amusingly, one actor who is black) get to play the Leaderene at some point, sporting her characteristic perfect coiffure, which is sometimes blonde, sometimes white, during the Falklands war camouflaged, and finally, in a fantasy sequence involving nine Thatchers on stage at once, gilded. The choreography is superb. The women take on every role from Denis Thatcher to Ronnie Reagan, but also turn themselves into South Atlantic penguins and sheep, or bend their bodies to create the benches and despatch boxes of the House of Commons.

They need to pay more attention to diction. I saw the first night and, not surprisingly, improvements could be made. But they must be doing most things right, as the show won a standing ovation.

Those looking for a hatchet job will be disappointed. Of course, social divisions, the miners' strike and unemployment are mentioned during an effective reprise by the chorus of Thatcher's words when she first entered Downing Street, taken from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony."

But then again, we hear the words that she wrote to the bereaved parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands. At one time, Ian Curteis's television play was scrapped by the BBC for showing Thatcher in too sympathetic a light, penning her condolences to the families. In this play we are definitely meant to feel her pain when the murderous cabinet crowds in around her.

I wasn't especially impressed by the music, but the song "No, No, No!" is funny. Those were her words in the House about Brussels's plans for extending European powers. That parliamen- tary performance drove Geoffrey Howe to resign, precipitating her downfall. The song is performed by a Thatcher verging on lunacy, wheeling the microphone stand around her body like Mick Jagger.

Another song I enjoyed comes at the most controversial moment of the play. Thatcher is depicted as a doddery old woman "losing my marbles". Reminiscing about her life, she muses that "the chemical equation by which I ruled the nation was Denis, Ronnie, Crawfie, my handbag and me". (Cynthia Crawford was her faithful personal assistant.)

The Warwick students will have learned that hers was an age of real politics: of issues, principles and bitter divisions. Back then it was a privilege to have a front-row seat. I bet Dave Nellist agrees.

Thatcher: the musical will be on nationwide tour in the autumn