Strange how things come in pairs.
Of course the Queen is missing from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III but in Moira Buffini‘s offering, Handbagged, she’s very much alive. There’s two Queens; an older version, Q (Marion Bailey) and one younger, Liz (Lucy Robinson). But some may feel it should come with a warning, “this play contains two Margaret Thatchers”.
Buffini speculates on what went on between the two women in their weekly Palace meetings. Some of it is amusingly plausible with Thatcher becoming increasingly irritated, seeing them as time wasted, while the Queen struggles to find a conversational common ground. With constant fourth wall-breaking they can’t even agree on whether there should be an interval. The Queen sees intervals as the best thing about a trip to the theatre while Thatcher wants to “go straight through”. How Whingerish. Peculiar to find oneself in agreement with Thatcher.
Indhu Rubasingham directs proceedings largely as a playful romp and successfully navigates mood changes from sombre to comedic without substantial jarring. Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle fill in with a slew of cameos from Denis Thatcher to Rupert Murdoch to Ronald Reagan and if both argue about who should be Neil Kinnock, there’s no competing over who should be Nancy. Mohan seems perfectly happy putting on a red frock for his deliberately ludicrous version of Mrs Reagan.
Although it predates last year’s The Audience it treads on dangerously similar ground and suffers by comparison. Even though this concentrates on one prime minister it still feels as if it’s trying to fit too much in. The Thatcher check list includes the Falklands, the Brighton Hotel bombing, the community charge, the miners’ strike, the Royal Wedding, Airey Neave, Hesseltine and Howe etc. The play was extended from a short play in the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics Season and sometimes it feels like an over-extended sketch. The interaction between the four women sometimes becomes irritating and fussily over-complicated especially in front of the distractingly unattractive Union Jack framework set.
One of the Queens is much more convincing than the other and Stella Gonet‘s older Thatcher reminded Andrew (who came out of mothballs for this theatrical sortie) of Joan Sanderson. But she seemed pretty believable until Fenella Woolgar‘s younger version stepped onto stage. Only the real Thatcher could be Thatchier than Woolgar. Or perhaps Meryl Streep.
We laughed intermittently but not as much as we’d expected and when we did it was mainly at Woolgar’s brilliant impersonation. If you need one reason to come to see Handbagged it’s Woolgar. Or as Andrew murmured wistfully “Why isn’t Fenella Woolgar in everything?” Quite.