Handbagged by Moira Buffini in a new production directed by Jo Newman
Handbagged takes us through the major events of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as British prime minister. I use the word ‘reign’ deliberately because the story is told through a series of meetings between an increasingly regal Thatcher (Eve Matheson) and the actual Queen Elizabeth (Caroline Hacker).
Handbags multiply as those two are overseen by older versions of themselves, played by Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon. Much of the humour stems from the characters commenting to the audience on what is said. Typically: ‘I never said that’.
Because the play is speculation, no-one knows for sure what was said and the characters are aware that they are performing this version of events for an audience. ‘Whatever we say, it must stay within these three walls,’ says the Queen. What we are presented with is a conflict between the ideological, deaf-to-compromise, humourless Thatcher (‘No’ being her favourite word) and a more compassionate, ethical and wryly amusing Queen. It’s no surprise who ends up the winner in this handbagging contest.
The author Moira Buffini clearly thinks Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was bad news. If you agree, you’ll get a lot of pleasure in hearing the Queen being upset by the effects of her government’s policies- dividing the nation, creating a greater gap between rich and poor, encouraging greed. ‘We lost the feeling that had persisted since the war,’ she says, ‘That we are all in this together.’ ‘Is she a socialist?’ asks Mrs T.
I never really felt I got beneath the skin of the two women in power, despite the poignant moments of shared sadness at the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.
I found the history lesson got a bit boring at times but there is plenty of fun to be had in the conflict between these two women in power. All the women do good impressions of the protagonists but Susan Penhaligon is uncannilly believable as the older Queen and- perhaps because we nearly all have this well of affection for the real queen- she gets the most laughs.
Supporting the four women, two men play actors who have been hired to play all the other parts- Denis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Hesletine, and so on- and who also address the audience with their ‘own’ left wing views, in case we found the Queen’s opinions a little oblique. Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall provide a lot of knockabout comedy and almost steal the show.
On the whole the performance I saw seemed a little hesitant which, for me, dampened the laughs. I expect, after a few more outings, it will be much sharper.
Handbagged can be seen at Salisbury Playhouse until until 20 April 2019 then tours to York Theatre Royal (24 April – 11 May) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (14 May – 1 June)