Writer: Moira Buffini
Director: Jo Newman
Designer: Dawn Allsopp
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Handbagged is a polished, civilized and sporadically very amusing entertainment based on an ingenious and appealing premise. It passes two hours stage time most pleasantly, the production is stylish, the performances witty and intelligent, but too often, for a comedy, it’s just not funny enough. Perhaps it’s too civilized; something a touch wilder or more subversive might have worked better.
Moira Buffini bases the play on the concept of the Queen and Margaret Thatcher both looking back on their fraught relationship, with the aid of two further actors playing them as they were in the years of the Thatcher premiership and two male actors filling the minor roles. Initially, in 2010, it was a half hour segment of a much longer evening and the signs are there of the material having been stretched to become a full-length play.
Sometimes the stretching takes the form of the inclusion of gratuitous jollity, such as the Queen’s walk-about at the start of Act 2, with the audience exhorted to stand for Her Majesty. More often it consists of straightforward re-telling of the story of the Thatcher years. Some brief scenes give a delicious twist to the relationship and the narrative, some are played straight with satirical commentary, some benefit from over-the-top caricature by the two actors of all work, but some are little more than factual narrative.
Perceptively Buffini makes the Queen subject to change, Mrs Thatcher unbendingly unchanging. Q, as the older Queen is termed, is more mischievous and sardonic – and maybe an inch or two further to the left – than Caroline Harker’s dutiful Liz. As Q Susan Penhaligon gets full value from the best lines in the play. Sarah Crowden as T, the older Thatcher, channels the original most effectively (and dogmatically) as she tries remorselessly to impose her version of events, her world-view mirrored by the younger Mags, Alice Selwyn stepping in more than capably for the advertised Eve Matheson.
The two actors thrust haplessly into this female battle of wills are Buffini’s subtlest inspiration – and very well played in Jo Newman’s production, a York Theatre Royal co-production that first appeared at Salisbury Playhouse. The layering of the roles has a purpose beyond amusement, but they are certainly very funny. There is the comedy of instant caricature, nothing new in these days when asking an actor to play eight or ten parts is par for the course. Then there is the Stoppardian comedy of the actors playing the actors playing the roles – they even argue over who gets to be Neil Kinnock. The final layer is of the voice of the people – why can’t we have a scene about the urban unrest under Thatcher, for instance? Jahvel Hall is terrific as Kenneth Kaunda, a palace footman, Nancy Reagan and many others and has a perfect understanding with Andy Secombe, a docile Dennis Thatcher who gets his share of the limelight as Ronald Reagan.
The elegant simplicity of Dawn Allsopp’s set – mostly steps, doors and chairs when needed – reflects Newman’s production and the costumes are similarly at one with the original concept, a few comic touches for Hall and Secombe’s quick changes and the colour code by which the Queen wears different pastel shades, but T and Mags never shift from their faithful blue.
Running until May 11, 2019 | Image: Helen Murray