It wasn’t so much that I missed Handbagged when it emerged from its smaller format at the Tricycle Theatre five years ago, more that I felt I and everybody else had already had a surfeit of royalty, Thatcheresque and the conventional kind, in Peter Morgan’s Audience.
Still, here’s Moira Buffini’s Handbagged making its querulous way round the largely sympathetic theatre towns of Middle England. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve sort of lived it since its bold and opportunistic setting is the Britain of the 1980s, when Progrock had given way to New Romanticism and a wintery old Labour government had been – only one word for it – handbagged out of the way by the nation’s first female Prime Minister.
Buffini’s play is a review-like romp through a decade that happened to fit perfectly into the handbag of Thatcher’s stormy tenure. Just as Peter Morgan imagined a succession of encounters between Her Majesty and her PMs, so Buffini sets up an ongoing faceoff between Ma’m and Maggie. Two of each actually, so that the older version can work in tandem with the younger one, reminiscing, guiding, commentating behind the fray. Sometimes this device is daring to the point of surrealism, sometimes it makes for a chaotic quartet of powerful women, one half of them there by dint of Methodist rigour and passionate Conservatism, the other half because, well, their uncle had abdicated.
That, of course, is England for you, so Buffini’s premise can hardly be faulted for a lack of realism. Nor can she be accused of skimping on detail as we roar our way through the great schisms and causes of the epoch, from the Falklands war which, let’s face it, converted her from a loathed liability to a sainted seer, through the miners’ strike, the rapport with Reagan, not to mention Rupert Murdoch, the Big Bang in the City and the even bigger one in the nation beyond as her fate was sealed by the disastrous poll tax initiative.
In this production the constant star is not so much the handbagging politician as the far longer serving, far longer suffering Queen. The older versions of both women are played with tremendous virtuosity by Kate Fahy (Mrs. T.) and Susie Blake (Queen), the one flaunting her elected eminence with a polished brassiness and doomed stab at humility, the other countering with the old, skilled languor of aristocratic entitlement. This is the comic kernel of the play and, as far as one can gather, very probably the actuality of their encounters. The stage result, again not unlike the life one, makes for a monarch whose inclinations seem to tilt unexpectedly close to socialism as a result of her weekly facetofaces with Grantham grocer’s ardent daughter. Iron ladies both of them, each troubled by children bucking the script, but the constitutionally enshrined one proving far more flexible, ultimately far more human than the democratically anointed one.
Goodness there are problems though, as befits the decade. It is left to two brave male souls to portray the passing incidentals of Reagan, Murdoch, Heseltine, Howe, Kinnock, you name it. Oh yes and Prince Philip and Dennis Thatcher, let’s not forget them. The job of this pair, foundering gamely in the flood like an endangered gender, goes to Asif Khan and Richard Teverson. Their roles are defined with resigned accuracy as Actor 1 and Actor 2. Not that they’re bad, just so outnumbered by their tasks that much of the humour rests on the hopeless of their being Nancy Reagan one minute, Neil Kinnock the next. Rory Bremner and Jon Culshaw would have struggled. Even in Indhu Rubasingham’s smoothly flowing production, the knowing selfmockery of the actors is a joke of diminishing returns.
There are some cracking lines, mind. Queen: “I’d like an interval now.” (To Thatcher) “Would you like an interval?” Thatcher: “No.” Queen: “We’ll have a fifteen minute interval.”
All done and dusted in just over two hours. For a decade that sometimes seemed to last for ever, not to mention a Prime Minister who threatened to go on and on and a Queen who simply got on with doing just that, this is merciful brevity.
Review by Alan Franks
A Tricycle Theatre Production Olivier Award Winner 2014 and Olivier Award Nominated for Best New Comedy 2015. Handbagged, by Moira Buffini. Starring Susie Blake as The Queen
Liz vs. Maggie
Two enduring icons born in the same year. One destined to rule, the other elected to lead. But when the stiff upper lip softened and the gloves came off, which one had the upper hand?
Moira Buffini’s celebrated new comedy speculates on what the world’s most powerful women really talked about behind closed palace doors. Susie Blake leads a cast of six. Her numerous television credits include Coronation Street and Mrs Brown’s Boys; she has appeared frequently with Victoria Wood and Russ Abbot and starred on stage in Wicked and Grumpy Old Women.
Be sure to bag a ticket for this wickedly funny and brilliantly astute West End smash hit comedy.
Booking to 28th November 2015
Surrey, TW9 1QJ
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre