To His Surprise, His Play About 2 Dead U.K. Politicians Struck a Chord
LONDON — A play about two long-dead British politicians might not be an obvious winner in London’s West End. But this summer a brief run of “Maggie & Ted, the Birth of Brexit” attracted a sellout theater crowd, including a former prime minister, Theresa May, and its success seems to have surprised the playwright, Michael McManus, as much as anyone.
“Talk to my 14-year-old self, or even to my 40-year-old self, and I would never have believed I could have got to that point,” said Mr. McManus, a 53-year-old Conservative Party member and former political aide, whose curriculum vitae is hardly typical of breakthrough writers.
The plan now is to take the production outside London, hone it and, if a mainstream audience can be found for a documentary political drama, secure a full run in the West End.
That would be an unusual success for someone who came to theater after decades in and around British politics, who witnessed firsthand the tectonic shifts in the Conservative Party as it feuded bitterly over the country’s place in Europe and whose own career ambitions were shipwrecked in the process.
After Britain’s five years in political meltdown, Mr. McManus’s play is nothing if not timely; it explores the genesis of an argument that would inspire the country’s polarizing rupture with the European Union and turbocharge the rise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The drama centers on the feud between two former Conservative prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher, whose rejection of European integration became ever more strident, and her predecessor as party leader, Edward Heath, who took Britain into the forerunner of the European Union in 1973 when he was in Downing Street.
Speaking in a London pub theater, Mr. McManus, who once worked for Mr. Heath, said the play was really about the epic battle for the party’s soul, a struggle that culminated in Mr. Johnson’s headlong charge to Brexit and his brutal purge of pro-Europeans.
Mrs. Thatcher’s growing hostility to Brussels inspired the Euroskeptics, who have now captured a Conservative Party that once championed Britain’s place in Europe and turned it into what Mr. McManus calls “the Brexit delivery machine.”
That transformation was bad news for Mr. McManus, an unrepentant Remainer who tried in vain for two decades to secure a seat in Parliament, but has had to accept that his political ambitions are over.
Born in northeast England, Mr. McManus was 7 when his family moved south to Kingston, not far from London. He later won a scholarship to Winchester College, a famous private school andwent on to Oxford University, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics.
If that sounds like the classic profile of a would-be Conservative lawmaker, Mr. McManus felt different from contemporaries, partly because his mother was born in Hungary. For him, much of the attraction of the Tories was their hostility to Communism and commitment to the Eastern European nations.
That worldview carried over to the Brexit debate. “Nobody will ever persuade me that Brexit was a good choice, ever,” he said.
When Mr. McManus began working for the Tories in 1990, Mrs. Thatcher was about to be overthrown, partly because of her hostility to European integration. Her successor, John Major, promised to put Britain at the heart of Europe — not a pledge that has aged well.
After first working as an adviser to a Conservative cabinet minister, in 1995 Mr. McManus became political secretary to Mr. Heath, who by then had been out of power for two decades, yet remained unreconciled to his ouster. Nicknamed the “incredible sulk,” he was a brooding presence in Parliament who never forgave Mrs. Thatcher for deposing him as Conservative Party leader in 1975.
That feud helped inspire the play Mr. McManus began writing two years ago, in a midlife career change.
Those expecting a character assassination of Mrs. Thatcher are in for a surprise; the work is more detached than its playwright’s politics might suggest. Though he is an unapologetic Remainer, it is the Euroskeptic Mrs. Thatcher who emerges as not just the dominant figure but, surprisingly perhaps, the nicer one too.
Mr. McManus said he wanted to dissipate some of the polarization provoked by Brexit.But perhaps he is just generous by nature — he also has nice things to say about the current prime minister, albeit in a backhanded way. Mr. Johnson has “a remarkable skill set,” he said, “You’ve got to admire his techniques; I work in theater now so have an eye for techniques and winning over an audience.”
As for Mr. Heath, Mr. McManus puts a similarly positive gloss on things, talking airily about his affection for his former boss until reminded of his own words in the play’s program notes.
Mr. Heath was “chilly and imperious, solipsistic and unappreciative,” a man who nursed grudges and passé ideas, and not someone he ever much liked, the playwright wrote.
“Umm, yes, a little waspish by my usual standards,” Mr. McManus allowed, sipping his beer and adding with a laugh, “it’s a bit hard to come back from that.”
Though Mr. Heath was charm personified while wooing Mr. McManus for the job of political secretary, the frost set in once he accepted. In 2000, after Mr. McManus announced he would run for Parliament in the following year’s general election, he lost his job with Mr. Heath, promptly and peremptorily. “He decided when I was on holiday that he was going to get rid of me,” he said.
Mr. McManus fell short in that election and never again managed to be selected as a candidate, the first step to running for office under the British system. But several career paths beckoned; he subsequently worked as a consultant, a journalist and as the director of a media watchdog. He also wrote several books, including one about Mr. Heath. Another, “Tory Pride and Prejudice,” chronicled a transformation in the Conservative Party’s attitude to gay rights.
When Mr. McManus won his first job in 1990 with the Conservative Party, it was just two years after the government had passed Section 28, a notorious piece of legislation that banned municipalities or schools from “promoting” homosexuality. The hypocrisy of this law was apparent at party headquarters which was, as Mr. McManus puts it, a “cauldron of gaydom.” A quarter of a century later, another Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, would legalize same-sex marriage.
Mr. McManus worked alongside a young Mr. Cameron at Tory headquarters in 1990, but says he never felt quite on the same wavelength as his richer and better-connected contemporary, particularly when discussing weekend plans. While Mr. McManus was planning to watch a soccer match, Mr. Cameron would be preparing for a posh activity like stalking deer at some grandee’s estate in Scotland.
Though Mr. Cameron’s decision to call the 2016 Brexit referendum proved a disastrous miscalculation, his gamble on legalizing same-sex marriage (despite internal opposition) paid off.
Looking back on his two-decade quest to become a lawmaker, Mr. McManus regrets missing his best shot at Parliament in 2001. If he’d won 5,000 more votes, he thinks he could have held on to the seat for years before pro-Europeans were purged.
Although he has a part-time job in a law firm, concentrating on the theater was a gamble because he is decades older than most breakthrough writers.
It has, he said, brought a kind of excitement and satisfaction he never thought achievable, a moment of pure delight as the house lights went down and the stage lights went up at the start of his play at the Garrick Theater.
“I’ve always found theater to be mesmerizing, and to be the mesmerist is a great thing,” he said.
And, come to think of it, there can’t be many better ways to get some revenge on a grumpy former boss.