Writer: Moira Buffini
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Reviewer: Dave Smith
We’ll probably never know what was said over the eleven years of weekly meetings between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, but as Moira Buffini’s cleverly conceived play suggests, it was unlikely to have been a meeting of minds. While the former was bent on changing the very heart of the country, the other was, and of course still is, a byword for tradition and continuity.
On stage throughout Handbagged are 1980s versions of the Queen (Emma Handy) and Margaret Thatcher (Sanchia McCormack), while watching, commenting (often with a defensive ‘I never said that’) and criticising from the sides are older versions, played by Susie Blake and Kate Fahy respectively. Around them, Asif Khan and Richard Teverson play a plethora of lesser – mostly – male rôles, from Ronald Reagan, Denis Thatcher and Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda to Geoffrey Howe, Neil Kinnock and Nancy Reagan.
Politically, it’s almost entirely unforgiving of the former Prime Minister, and evokes many of the more divisive aspects of her time in office, from the miners’ strike and the Falklands war to the poll tax riots and her opposition to majority rule in Rhodesia and South Africa.
Next to her, the Queen comes across as just the kind of woolly-minded liberal Thatcher detested; while that understandably makes her the more sympathetic of the two, the older Thatcher is not slow to point out her own shortcomings – when she comments on the lack of fairness of the poll tax, for example, Thatcher reminds her that she at the time was paying no tax at all.
If all that makes it sound like the evening is going to be nothing more than some kind of socialist polemic, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is first and foremost a comedyand a very good one. Not to say that it doesn’t have its serious moments or wear its political heart on its sleeve. But only the most po-faced Conservatives and royalists are likely to find more to be offended or outraged at than amused by during Handbagged.
All the cast are on good form. Susie Blake has good fun playing a Queen without the need for public restraint and manages to bag many of the best jokes, with her barbed comments made from the safety of hindsight. Both Thatchers nail the voices from their respective eras, but Kate Fahy also manages to nail the look and it’s a frightening combination.
The male ‘extras’ also do good work, understandably scoring both hits and unapologetic misses with the range of impressions they’re called on to make, but Asif Khan has the double bonus of getting more laughs and acting as the true conscience of the play, refusing to let them skip over key moments as they review Thatcher’s time in power.
Handbagged manages to evoke memories, raise laughs and poke increasingly less gentle fun at its protagonists, and for those that lived through and remember the 1980s, comes across as a believable representation of the atmosphere that may well have prevailed when the two came face to face.
Younger members of the audience, however, may have felt much of the evening’s proceedings passing them by, as relatively obscure personalities and events share equal time with those of which even those not born at the time should have some knowledge. With that slight proviso, however, this is an enjoyable if unchallenging look at the clashes between two of the more dominant personalities in 1980s Britain.
Runs until 24 October 2015 and on tour | Image: Tristram Kenton