Writer: Moira Buffini
Director: Jo Newman
Reviewer: Sam Lowe
It is an eye-catching title, Handbagged. Meaning, a woman who verbally attacks a person or idea ruthlessly and forcefully. Margaret Thatcher was labelled “The Iron Lady”, and appeared to always speak her mind and even be pugnacious. Tonight’s comedy play is about women in power. This is an Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Wiltshire Creative, and York Theatre Royal Production.
The play was written in 2010, before the whole Brexit bedlam. It was much shorter and Buffini had gone to great lengths in researching the central characters, Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. Much of the play covers the private meetings they had in the 1980s, where no minutes were taken. Subsequently, this play is a balance of the fictional and the factual, and there are balanced viewpoints in the political discourse throughout. The two male actors take on multiple roles throughout and are fundamentally servants to the Queen and the Prime Minister. They also represent us, “the ordinary people”, they express the viewpoints we’re thinking about in our heads.
Handbagged envisages what may have happened at the Queen’s weekly meetings with Margaret Thatcher. The two women go head to head as they convey their opposing views of Britain’s role in the world throughout the Thatcher Years. The premise is there is an older Queen and Thatcher (presumably from 2010 when Thatcher was still alive) and their younger counterparts from the 1980s. They are thought-tracking and delivering political commentary on the past. In a metatheatrical manner, the older Prime Minister and Queen have employed Actor 1 and Actor 2 to play all the other parts such as: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Geoffrey Howe, and Denis Thatcher. This is their story and they won’t let any other person (especially men) attempt to modify it.
Sarah Crowden, who plays T (the older Thatcher) is extremely convincing as the Prime Minister. Her vocal impression is on the mark. Crowden even looks like her as well, very well done. The older Queen, called Q in the script, is portrayed by Susan Penhaligon and is instantly loveable in the role. Playing their younger counterparts are Caroline Harker as Liz and Alice Selwyn as Mags. They work effectively with the other two actresses in mirroring them vocally and physically. However, the synchronisation could be more precise at times. Actor 1 (Jahvel Hall) and Actor 2 (Andy Secombe) seamlessly switch from character to character with their dynamism.
The metatheatricality in this is clever, albeit it can overplay on it sometimes. It’s the older Queen and PM who are in a position of power to edit and cherry-pick the story they would like to tell. Making the male actors run around in circles to serve the women’s narrative. The Queen exerts her power over the performance in determining when the interval takes place. It’s the relationship between theatre and politics that is uncovered here. Politicians have to perform their role, be captivating public speakers, and be able to write political rhetoric and speeches. Although much of the humour comes from the metatheatricality, overall the play is more educational and reflective.
There are parallels between the past and present, which make it interesting. Thatcher’s fortitude to continue on with the Brighton conference after the 1984 IRA bombing is comparable to the strength and resilience demonstrated by the Mancunian people after the recent Manchester Arena attack. One other attention-grabbing moment is when Actor 1 challenges Thatcher and halts the play’s proceedings when the topic of “Pay No Poll Tax” comes up. In addition, the way in which they depict the Queen’s Corgis is adorably amusing.
Designer, Dawn Allsopp successfully plays with levels and status in a set which appears to represent Buckingham Palace, however, why are the walls plain white? Adrienne Quartly’s sound and music is rather random, in particular, the repeated one staccato chord to mark the change of scene.
Attention to detail is good in this play. Everything from the story to the character’s stances and movements. The Queen has her left hand over her right wrist at waist height; the PM has her right arm by her side and left hand on her stomach for the majority of the play. Handbagged explores women in power and the correlation between theatre and politics.
Runs until 1 June 2019 | Image: Helen Murray