“We are both Britain”
Moira Buffini’s Handbagged started life as a short play as part of the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season back in 2010 and now, in a fully fleshed out version, it returns to Kilburn to imagine the relationship that might have existed between two of the most significant British women of the last century – the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. But much has happened in the meantime, not least Peter Morgan having a huge success with a play that also depicted the relationship between monarch and Prime Minister(s) and the small matter of the death of the UK’s first female head of government.
Perhaps conscious of the impossibility of trying to envisage what was really said between the pair, Buffini opts instead for a meta-theatrical fantasia and huge fun it is. Older incarnations of the women (Q and T) interact with their younger selves (Liz and Mags), each giving us their own take on Thatcher’s reign through the weekly meetings held with the Queen, whilst two actors play any number of supporting characters – Reagans Ronald and Nancy, Rupert Murdoch, Neil Kinnock, a simple palace footman, the list goes on… As one of them recounts an event, the others pass comment, challenge memories, offer explanatory excuses, even break entirely out of character sometimes.
It’s an ambitious project for sure but one which sparkles with wit and playfulness. It doesn’t pretend to offer any great psychological insight, how could it, but it does examine the way in which history, particularly political history, is reported and remembered, how the myth relates to reality (or not as the case may be) and how the force of personality can ride roughshod over even the most deeply felt voices of protest. Buffini nails her colours to the mast pretty early on – the Queen would love to enjoy a girlish gossip but a profoundly respectful Maggie is stridently intransigent ad nauseam – but the lively spirit of the writing, even as it touches on the darker times of the 1980s, should ensure interest across the political spectrum.
Indhu Rubasingham directs the whole affair with a keen sense of sharpness, maintaining clarity even in the more tangled scenes, and encourages some simply extraordinary performances from her cast. On first glance, these are impersonations par excellence – Marion Bailey nails the vaguely blank public façade of today’s Queen and Stella Gonet’s blown-dry helmet mounts the rigid stateliness of the latter-day Baroness. Clare Holman is appealing as a younger monarch but Fenella Woolgar is simply outrageously good as the fresh-into-power Thatcher – the walk, the head-tilt, the relentless drive, the absolute self-confidence, it’s all there in spades and should most definitely be seen by all.
The connection between the performers is also excellent – several moments occur where a character’s movements are amusingly mirrored by both actors, and there’s a genuine warmth at the way in which they often gently admonish the other for embellishing the truth – “I didn’t say that”. Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan are great value for money too as the journeymen working their way through the list of supporting characters, garnering their own fair share of laughs (Rawle is particularly excellent at the quick switches) as well as pulling out moments of genuine pathos in representing the voice of the people. Richard Kent’s simply effective design of a deconstructed Union Jack is an art installation in itself and makes the perfect backdrop for an excellent, amusing piece of drama.