Ever wanted to be The Queen? not a Queen but The Queen? It can’t be a bad life really. You get to travel around for free, everyone does whatever you tell them and it’s a job for life. Of course, there are snakes as well as ladders in the monarchy game. As Queen you have no actual power, can’t vote and every Tuesday you have to spend some time with the current Prime Minister – someone you may not personally like or respect – and listen to them whitter on about how great things are. In the UK, for an eleven year period, the roles of Monarch and Prime Minister were both held by women. Nobody knows what passed between them at their weekly meetings, but playwright Moira Buffini has come up with some ideas and her award-winning play Handbagged, currently running at the Jack Studio Theatre, is the fruition of her thoughts.
Unusually for a play about the monarch and her PM, Handbagged makes use of two Margaret Thatcher’s and two Queen Elizabeth’s. The use of two actors to play each role means that the play can take both a contemporary view of what occurred – using the younger actors (Sarah Tortell and Fiona McGahren) – and also a looking back approach with older versions of T and Q (Sue Higginson and Pauline Armour). Of course, these two formidable ladies do not exist in a vacuum and as the play takes you through that period, they interact with many famous and infamous personalities such as Neil Kinnock, Ronald and Nancy Regan. Arthur Scargill, Michael Shea, etc, all played by Howie Ripley and Mark Steere.
As well as telling the story of the two ladies, there is an interesting show within a show where the actors, know they are acting and are, at times being selective with the information they are passing to the audience, most of whom are probably too young to remember what a traumatic time Mrs Thatcher’s ‘reign’ was. So, occasionally, one of the actors will break character to bring up a point, provide some additional information or even argue with one or both of the Mrs T’s about her rewriting of history. This trick could get annoying but is used to great effect, particularly at the start of the second act where Howie and Mark fight over who is the better Neil Kinnock by both of them performing the Kinnock “I Warn You” speech from the 1983 general election.
Handbagged is an odd play in many ways. Two queens, two PMs and two chaps playing everyone else, could lead to a lot of confusion, but somehow it doesn’t. Even when one of the characters says something a tad outrageous, and another immediately states “I never said that” it still works. Part of this is because, although nobody knows what happens when monarch meets PM, all of us have an idea of what the two ladies are like and the conversations just feel as if they could have happened, if not exactly as portrayed then not that far away from it. The four ladies are really good, and full credit has to go to the costume designer for making them so recognisable from the moment they stepped on stage. Add to that the actor’s voices and really great mimicking of their subject’s mannerisms and the fact we have two queens and two Mrs Ts at the same time doesn’t seem wrong. My one really minor criticism was the handbags. Both Mrs T’s carried theirs in the left hands but the Queen’s held theirs on opposite arms which struck me as a bit odd – especially as we now know the Queen uses her handbag position to send messages to her staff.
Director Dan Armour has kept the set simple, a glorious golden Union Flag (which was even the right way up so well done there), and a couple of chairs, so that the cast can move around them – especially important when the older Mrs Thatcher goes off into one of her trademark rants.
Having been around during the period covered by Handbagged I was impressed at how many memories the show stirred up in me. Moira Buffini has kept the writing fairly neutral – those with a slight left wing stance – and in fact, Margaret’s final betrayal and downfall at the hands of her own party was quite emotional to watch. Handbagged may be set in the 1980s but in these days of political turmoil and strife, the current leaders of some of our parties might find a trip to Brockley would be both entertaining and informative.
Review by Terry Eastham
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.
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Tuesday 28 February to Saturday 11 March 2017