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New play imagines a Thatcher and Lennon meeting

Bill DeYoung

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Which two people from history would you most like to see trapped in a stalled elevator together? It’s a fun, conversation-starting dinner party question (another variation: What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with?)

British playwright Ben Randall used this as the fulcrum for his play Whiskey & Soda, which has its American premiere at the Off-Central in St. Petersburg Feb. 1-11. Mike Nower is the director.

“I’d like to say that it was an intellectual idea,” Randall laughs, “but basically I was on a drunken night out with some friends, and we were talking about two people stuck on an elevator together … and I said well, wouldn’t John Lennon and Margaret Thatcher stuck on an elevator together be interesting?

“That gave me the embryo of the idea. And it went from there, really.”

It’s Dec. 17, 1979, and Thatcher, England’s newly-elected Prime Minister, is at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. That evening, she will give her first speech at the White House, in the presence of President Jimmy Carter.

(So far, so true. This actually happened.)

John Lennon, the former Beatle, arrives for a pre-arranged meeting with Thatcher (he has her letter of invitation in his jacket pocket). A resident alien living in New York City, Lennon has made the trip to Washington out of curiosity. He has no idea what the steely politician wants with him.

(This part, Randall invented out of whole cloth. Thatcher and Lennon never met.)

“From there,” explains the playwright, “it was taking the two points of view and then putting them together, and seeing how it worked.”

Ben Randall

Whiskey & Soda (the title is both a metaphor and a reference to something that happens in the play) puts these two highly charged, clever and iconic deep-thinkers together and asks the simple question: What would they talk about?

The answer: Pretty much everything. Thatcher (U.K. actress Sara Nower, who assayed the role in the first British production) has an agenda, but sparring with the acerbic Lennon (Cody Farkas) derails it time and time again.

Lennon pokes and prods her relentlessly. “Everyone thinks of Margaret Thatcher as this upper class, conservative, landed gentry kind of idea,” Randall says, “and John Lennon being a working class hero. But really they were exactly the opposite. So how did they get there?

“As people, they were so rich in their choices, and the way that they were driven. They were totally driven – and once you’ve got two people driving in opposite directions, then you’ve got this great spark, and this great idea for discussion.”

Along with the ripe volleys of politics and philosophy, as the two down their drinks and loosen up, they share personal details, life dreams and even a couple of very, very British jokes.

It took copious amounts of research, explains Randall. “What it was, was understanding their views on life. Because a lot of it was ambiguous, who they were and why they made the decisions they did.

“Especially with Margaret Thatcher. It was kind of trying to get inside, or trying to understand why she made the choices she did. Obviously that took a leap of imagination. Within reason.”

A sense of the inevitable future swirls around the sparring dialogue. Lennon would be shot to death less than a year afterwards, and Thatcher would go on to a long, successful – and controversial – career in Parliament.

Whiskey & Soda, however, is about a single moment in time – an imagined moment, to be sure, but an endlessly intriguing “what-if?”

“If you want to boil it down to something, the play is about control,” Randall says. “They’re both trying to control each other. That’s what the banter is; they’re trying to get one up on the other. To find a way around the other. ‘Cause they’re both charismatic people.

“In the end, it became much more than I thought it would become. The play is about much more than two people stuck in an elevator. It’s about so many things, but fundamentally it’s about how we can be controlled, and how we can fight against that. We’ve all got a reason, and we’re all trying to find our way through life – and in a way, control our lives.”

For details and tickets, visit the Off-Central website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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