“It’s all artifice and sham,” grumbles one of two unsettlingly realistic Margaret Thatchers to the audience. The essence of Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s play sending up the Queen and former PM’s relationship, is its self-referential wit. “Whatever we say must stay between these three walls,” quips an Elizabeth II, poker-faced.
This new political satire showing at the Tricycle Theatre and sturdily directed by Indhu Rubasingham is a feast of mirroring and juxtaposing characters – with most of the action involving both a young and older Thatcher, interacting with both a young and present-day Queen, all on stage at once.
Marion Bailey is probably the best of the bunch, as a pleasingly cheeky older Queen. “We’re not going through the whole thing, are we?” she sighs when Thatcher gears up for a lengthy Falklands narrative. Her junior is played subtly by Clare Holman. The Thatchers maintain impressive impersonations, as well as making the roles their own – Stella Gonet is the elder, Fenella Woolgar the verbose, low-curtseying junior.
“I never said that,” the elders interject, chastising the excitable younger versions of themselves for running away with their contempt for the lady opposite. “Where did she get that accent?” gasps the Queen. “Our monarch, I’m sorry to tell you, is wet,” tuts Thatcher.
Although the strained relationship between the Queen and this PM is often hinted at in the history books – it was the subject of a memorable Sunday Times splash at the time bellowing how “dismayed” the monarch was at her government’s policies – stories of the Palace’s horror at “that bloody woman” are exaggerated. Buffini uses imaginings of the private audiences between the two to explore how tense the exchanges may have been, but has the older versions of the characters temper any sensationalism.
It is Peter Morgan’s The Audience production of earlier this year, were it intended as simply a satirical study of the period when two women ruled the country.
But unlike Morgan’s jaunt through an imagined past, there are other characters too. A vile Denis Thatcher punctuates the action saying awful things like “blackies” and enunciating hysterically: “parl-i-a-ment”. He’s played by an impressive and versatile Jeff Rawle, who flits between Ronald Reagan (“RON!” scream both Thatchers when he arrives, weak at the knees, clutching each other in girlish glee), Rupert Murdoch, Arthur Scargill, Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine. “Times are hard and it’s a job,” he confides in the audience, regarding having to play such a ridiculously diverse roll call.
The production’s conscience is the handsome, young Neet Mohan, who plays everyone else – “I am a functionary,” he announces cheerfully when we first meet him. This device is at times clunky, particularly when he insists the others don’t whitewash history: “So you’re not going to mention the riots?” and “you were going to close all the mines”. A Thatcher contemptuously asks “Have these people paid to hear that?” “YES!” the North London audience politely cries.
Handbagged is a fun, touching satire, yet it could be sharper and more dynamic – occasionally it slides into a history lesson. But political nuts, and anyone else who doesn’t mind two hours cooped up in a dark room with not one, but two, Margaret Thatchers, will love it.