Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Writer: Moira Buffini
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
Handbagged should be awful. Seen The Iron Lady. Seen The Queen. Seen The Audience. And here’s another play with not one but two impersonations of Maggie, another expose of the private world of the Queen, and a plot that’s nothing more than speculation and gossip. It’s a recipe for failure. Handbagged, however, is a triumph, perfectly written, played and judged throughout.
The crux of the play is the relationship between the Queen Margaret Thatcher during her years from 1979-1990 as Prime Minister. Thatcher attends a weekly audience with HMQ, visits Balmoral and Commonwealth Heads of Government conferences and generally goes about the business of governing in contrast to the Queen’s business of being head of state. The play is also about what the two women later in life making sense of their relationship and looking back as they each struggle for the truth of what was happening in that most devise of decades: the 1980s. There are literally two Queens (Q and Liz) and two Maggies (T andMags), who can interact with each other through time, twisting the narrative, declaring scenes as fictitious, bickering at points and joining forces at others. It is a wonderful device that writer Moira Buffini uses to allow the play to explore imagined moments, likely encounters and possible viewpoints without being burdened by the demands of sources and reliability. She judges perfectly not what actually occurred between the two women, but what we as the audience would like to think occurred.
Susie Blake plays the Queen as she is now, and surely steals the show as the definitive 21st century Elizabeth Windsor. Blake has the specifics of stance, walk and expression down to a tee, and even her impeccable comic timing is something that it is easy to imagine the Queen may express in private. Emma Handy as the younger version is just as impressive, though her rôle is somewhat more serious. Through her, we see the Queen as an international diplomat, a political figure at the Head of the Commonwealth battling to end apartheid in South Africa and white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. Kate Fahy gives us a complex and compelling older Thatcher, capable of being steely still, but also willing to be reflective and even apologetic at times. Sanchia McCormack is a younger, bolder, harder Thatcher. McCormack is thrilling to watch as she sketches a fascinating woman from her first invitation by the Queen to form a Government through to her hubristic exit from power.
Handbagged is a comedy. And it is a very clever one. Rather than backgrounding politics, like The Iron Lady did for fear of alienating half the audience, the play deals with politics head on throughout the play. Thatcher’s uncompromising monetarism is countered firstly by the Queen’s one nation noblesse oblige politics and secondly by the supporting male actors (superbly played by Asif Khan and Richard Teverson) who offer alternative accounts of the key political events of the 1980s and the negative impact of Thatcherism. A lot of humour comes from them breaking rôles, bickering over who will play whom and over what their contracts require them to do. Khan, as a young Asian actor, is cast both as Nancy Regan and then to his horror as Enoch Powell. The race and gender politics of this humour is another minefield that Rhubasingham’s direction skilfully navigates. As in all good comedies, there are moments of pathos when the underlining pain or conflict in a humorous situation is revealed, none more so than in the ending of the play.
It’s hard enough for anyone to mimic the Queen or Thatcher as two of the most iconic women of the 20th century. The four women in this play have to not only pull that off, but have to be work with a twin version of themselves through time and make them convincingly one characterisation. With the sensational performance from these four women, Mirren and Streep can move over, there’s some serious competition in town. Handbagged is an absolute delight.
Runs until Saturday 20th September