Even for those of us only born at the end of the 80s, Margaret Thatcher’s political career remains resonant and controversial. Handbagged brings us those eleven years of the Iron Lady’s service as Prime Minister with a fresh and highly engaging perspective. A younger ‘Liz’ and ‘Mags’ battle their delicate balance of power over cream teas and damson jam, with their elder selves hovering near them ready to deny they had ever said such things as ‘that bloody woman’ or ‘there is no such thing as society’. This comic, entertaining and deliciously funny play reminds us of the frustrations of being a sovereign who is unable to assert her own opinions about government policy and can do more than try to advise and influence the Prime Minister when she comes to the weekly meetings at the palace. However, this play illustrates how impossibly difficult that must have been when faced with Thatcher and her unflinching ideas, her harsh and uncaring values and her belief that the Queen is just there to shake hands and smile.
Moira Buffini breaks the fourth wall and allows the audience to interact with her characters. It is the Queen who demands that there is to be an interval (much to Thatcher’s distaste) as well as requesting that Geoffrey Howe keep his recital of his resignation speech to a quick summary to save the audience from boredom. Two versatile and comic actors, Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, jump between a vast range of characters, from Denis Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, and from Nancy Reagan to Michael Shea. They both fight over the role of Neil Kinnock which develops into a powerful and rhetorical performance of his ‘I warn you’ speech. Thatcher interrupts with a confused and commanding ‘Denis?!’ which pulls the actor back into his original role as the supportive husband. These dramatic tricks are wonderful, playing games with us while laughing at the theatrical nature of politics itself.
Richard Kent’s design is very clever with careful consideration of the wardrobe of both ladies and the statements they were trying to make. While both are considered ‘power dressers’, he has found ways of establishing their different methods of asserting power through clothes. The set, a white outline of the Union Jack, is simple, subtle and certainly appropriate for a time when emphasising the ‘greatness’ of Britain was high on Thatcher’s agenda. The Cast works together wonderfully, the comedy heightened through perfect timing and through excellent characterisation. The four actors must have worked incredibly hard to develop the posture, stance, facial expressions and tone of voice that so characterises our perceptions of the Queen and Thatcher.
Handbagged is a feast of comic entertainment with laugh out loud moments throughout. It goes beyond the pleasures of other excellent comedies because of its basis in fact, and more than that, events that have shaped our society, our government and our attitude to politicians. Leaving the theatre, it was clear people were looking back to November 1990, discussing where they had been on that day, and how they had reacted. For those of us who were still in nursery school then, Handbagged is an education, a education where you can’t stop laughing.