Theatre review: Handbagged - Thatcher and the Queen make for a mischievous double act

 

The Queen and Margaret Thatcher are fast becoming as staple a stage double act as Hinge and Bracket. The pair featured in one of the testier confrontations in Peter Morgan’s The Audience. Now Moira Buffini has developed a sketch she wrote for the Tricycle’s 2010 Women, Power and Politics season into a fully fledged play.

Any fears that Morgan would have stolen her thunder with his West End hit are dispelled. Tracking their tricky relationship through the 11 years of the Thatcher premiership and beyond, Handbagged manages to tackle some pretty familiar material in a genuinely fresh and irresistibly mischievous spirit.

Buffini’s masterstroke is to turn the proceedings into a meta-theatrical spree. Her Majesty and the PM don’t just spar with one another but bicker with their elderly selves who are in attendance throughout and power the play forward. Versions of events are challenged; views that each individual might like to have expressed (Thatcher’s alleged desire, say, to withdraw the vote from the UK’s Irish citizens) are suddenly blurted out and then abruptly denied.

Beautifully evoked by Indhu Rubasingham’s excellent production, there’s a sense of crackpot playfulness in the piece (“Whatever we say must stay between these three walls”) that licenses Buffini to push beyond soberly realistic speculation in her handling of those weekly private audiences.

The self-reflexive dimension in no way makes light of the serious divisions between PM and monarch over issues ranging from sanctions against South Africa to the miners’ strike and the importance of the Commonwealth. In fact, the semi-aware theatricality throws into further relief their pronounced differences of temperament.

Shooting some hilariously grumpy glares and drumming her white-gloved knuckles, the older Queen (splendid Marion Bailey) is bent on steering the proceedings to a well-earned break. “We don’t need an interval. Whoever ordered an interval they can cancel it,” roars the older Thatcher, whose manic imperiousness and unhinged drive are stunningly well conveyed by Stella Gonet.

Two actors – Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle – portray, with knockabout glee and proprietary squabbles, a profusion of supporting characters, from Nancy and Ronald Reagan to Neil Kinnock and Kenneth Kaunda.

The literal-minded Thatcher has some difficulty with the concept of taking on multiple roles and is positively outraged when Denis reappears as Lord Carrington. Fenella Woolgar is quite uncanny as Thatcher in her prime, only flustered when she’s accused of perpetrating a joke, while Clare Holman appealingly conveys the younger Queen’s hapless struggle to find common ground and her irritation at being patronised. Sovereign fun.

To 9 November; 020 7328 1000

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