Since her reign began, the Queen has seen 13 prime ministers come and go, with Boris Johnson being number 14 and one suspects that out of these, her most memorable leader (so far) has been Britain’s first female PM, Margaret Thatcher.
In Handbagged, playwright Moira Buffini imagines what was said between these first ladies at weekly meetings which the Queen always holds with her Government’s leader. In real life, these conversations are kept strictly private, but Buffini uses this premise to imagine what was said between these iconic women, described as ‘two sides of the same British coin’. In doing so, Buffini puts the spotlight on a relationship that could at times be both tense and empathetic, with each asserting their own authority and at other times, providing support.
And if one Queen and one Margaret Thatcher isn’t enough, there are in fact two Queens and two Margaret Thatchers on stage at any one time – the younger queen and prime minister of the 1980s; Liz (played by Melissa Collier) and Mags (Zoe Aldrich); with their older selves, T (played by Jan Goodman) and Q (Louise Bangay) looking back on life. Each pair is a double act in themselves, often contradicting each other which provides many laughs, while also making the point that history is never totally clear or ‘true’, and like a coin, there can be at least two sides to any person.
This is a play which works on many levels, the personal is set against the backdrop of some of the most historic moments of the latter 20th century – there’s a quick refresh of the Falklands War, African politics, the miner’s strike (still stirring strong feeling among the audience) and the Irish Troubles. Special shout-out here to sound designer James Earls Davis who makes us jump out of our seats with the recreation of the Brighton bombing.
The director is Moira’s sister, Fiona, who has worked hard to ensure that anyone born after the iconic Thatcher era would still understand what was going on. However much of the humour is in recognising the caricatures of famous household political names, such as Ronald Reagan, Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock, ably brought to life by the actors of many parts Ashley Gerlach and Paul Mundell. The cast themselves often become ‘guides’ breaking out of the action of the play to explain what’s happening to the audience. There are plenty of jokes, but just a few haven’t worn well since the 1980s – but perhaps that’s the point, our attitudes towards cultural differences has changed over the years, and maybe this is another chance to reflect on changing times, and what is and isn’t acceptable and why we laugh and what makes us uncomfortable.
The play comes full circle, ending as it began, with a symbolic chair. It’s a metaphor for power, and this lady (Thatcher) is not for sitting. The audience isn’t for sitting either, obeying the call to stand for the Queen, and then giving a well-earned standing ovation at the end.
This is a thoughtful, entertaining play, first conceived nearly ten years ago, when Brexit wasn’t even a word. It has however stood the test of time, because the lines echo the political turmoil of today, and so strengthening its impact, and leaves you with plenty to think about, long after the two Queens and two Thatchers have picked up their handbags and returned home.
Review by Jackie Gregory
Handbagged is at the New Vic Theatre until September 28. For more details please click here.