It’s very broad, but not very deep. Handbagged, in its exploration of the years in which Margaret Thatcher (Sue Higginson) either restored or destroyed Britain (dependent on one’s point of view) from 10 Downing Street, is a bit like exploring central London from an open-top bus, with a tour guide chatting away name-dropping miscellaneous famous landmarks for a couple of hours, but from an arms-length perspective, never actually going into any of the buildings to see what lies beneath the surface.
It’s difficult to think of anything substantial from the Thatcher government that isn’t at least mentioned. It’s hardly enticing for a play to itself admit to certain people being portrayed as “thin caricatures”, though which ones playwright Moira Buffini meant is something I could wrestle with for some time without a definitive conclusion. I mean, it’s all there, in one form or another: economic policy, reductions to trade union powers, Arthur Scargill in particular, Neil Kinnock (Howie Ripley and Mark Steere re-enact the infamous ‘I warn you’ speech), Cynthia ‘Crawfie’ Crawford (Thatcher’s PA), Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth, the Falkland Islands, the Brighton hotel bombing, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Geoffrey Howe, Kenneth Clarke – and the one constant, husband Denis. And so on and so forth.
But this isn’t, thankfully, an entire evening of intense right-wing diatribes and verbal combat, oh no. (Or should that be, “No, no, no!”) H.M. The Queen (Pauline Armour) is both literally and figuratively a constant guiding presence. It’s difficult to buy in to a play that so readily admits to being a work of fiction despite having factual characters, inasmuch as it tells the audience (rightly), as does The Audience by Peter Morgan, that nobody really knows what has been said in the weekly meetings between Her Majesty and her successive Prime Ministers. As Theresa May might put it, “Private means private.”
The play is further complicated by there being younger versions of both women, ‘Liz’ (Fiona McGahren) and ‘Mags’ (Sarah Tortell) also on stage throughout. The four of them talk over one another, cut one another off, and contradict one another. It’s overkill, and a tad exhausting. Added to this is a subplot about stagecraft and the acting profession. The narrative is constantly frustrated and thwarted by disagreements about, for example, where the interval should be, or even if there should be one at all – an interesting enough discussion about the seemingly inexorable rise of the one-act play, but nothing to do with either Mrs Thatcher or the monarchy. Although performed with aplomb, I wonder if all this commentary about the theatre industry would be better suited to a separate show in its own right, the recent West End run of The Dresser being a case in point.
It is, at least, interesting, however familiar (or not) members of the audience may be with British politics from 4th May 1979 to 28th November 1990. But it does feel like a chosen specialist subject on the BBC television quiz show Mastermind, with topics rattled through at considerable speed, and questions answered or ‘passed’ accordingly. It’s for the audience to keep up as best they can. The play also has the feeling of political neutrality, refusing to portray either The Queen or Mrs Thatcher with either unquestionable reverence or scorn. In going from slapstick to sombre and back again, however, it lurches from one sort of extreme emotion to the other somewhat unnecessarily.
In a nutshell, this is a mischievous and spirited production that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Queen has met with every prime minister each week that she has been in London, since coming to the throne in 1952. Those meetings are not minuted and there are no other persons present, so no one really knows what was said. But supposing…
In Moira Buffini’s imagined account of those weekly meetings, she concocts a delicious, bitter-sweet confection of what might well have transpired on those tricky Tuesday afternoons – complemented by a dazzling cast of national and international politicians and personalities.
First Knight Theatre presents Moira Buffini’s multi award-winning play Handbagged, which was first produced by the Tricycle Theatre Company in 2013, and subsequently transferred to the West End before embarking on a National Tour.
First Knight Theatre is a new production company created by Dan and Pauline Armour. The Armours’ previous productions at the Jack Studio include: A Doll’s House, Clybourne Park, and The Pitmen Painters.
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Tuesday 28 February to Saturday 11 March 2017