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A CurtainUp London Review
The play follows the known interactions of the two women, one head of state, the prime minister and the other a constitutional monarch, from the memoirs of Thatcher and others and the political events of the day. Much of what we know about the Queen is derived from gossip as the royal household staff are bound by a code of discretion. .
The play is staged with all four women on stage together. All the male roles fulfilled by just two men, Jeff Rawle principally taking on Dennis Thatcher in a brass button stuffed blazer and Neet Mohan, many other parts starting with a footman but also tackling the Nancy Reagan part.
Much of the political thrust is about the Queen's desire to represent all the people in her Commonwealth, the remainder of the British Empire and Margaret Thatcher's hard line Conservative anti-African, except for white South Africa, stance. They fall out over South African boycotts, with us seeing a conversation that Moira Buffini has written using the 1986 Sunday Times article which claimed to be informed by sources close to the Queen.
Handbagged originated from the 2010 staging of Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle, where a shorter version was staged as one of many playlets, our review. The longer version was delayed when Helen Mirren was announced in The Audience. When that production was seen, it was felt that the plays were entirely different. Yes that is true, The Audience has the Queen with many of her prime ministers in what is principally a serious political play. Handbagged is essentially a comedy based on just the Thatcher : Queen relationship.
Richard Kent's design of almost Rennie Mackintosh white grids coming together struck me as a puzzle until I read in the programme that this was a colour neutralised version of the union jack (more correctly called the union flag) with its overlapping cross of St George, and the saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick. The suits of the women are based on what Mrs Thatcher and the Queen actually wore. We are told in the theatre programme that both women used the same fabric supplier but that while the Queen would allow her staff to chose for her, Margaret Thatcher would personally visit the shop, having it opened early just for her to see the whole range. This stylistic contrast illustrates the approach of the workaholic prime minister, famous for only sleeping three and a half hours a night, with the hard working, conscientious queen.
Of the performances, two are outstanding. Fenella Woolgar as the young anabashed Margaret Thatcher (Mags) has exactly the right, rather strident voice and body language. Marion Bailey as the older version of the Queen is superb, the eyebrows are perfect and, of course, the accurate wigs help both women. Stella Gonet starts well as the older Thatcher but her performance pales somewhat and I never felt that the young queen, Liz (Lucy Robinson) convinced. The two men work very hard and frequently break the fourth wall, that invisible wall between the play and the audience by commenting on the demands of their roles or arguing about who they will play.
We see both the rise, and the fall of Thatcher when her own party challenge her. Inspired by her greengrocer father, she says, curiously for the first woman prime minister, "After I turned 15 I had nothing to say to my mother." The Queen is portrayed here as hugely witty and Maggie has no sense of humour. She was famously called "Attila the Hen" by Labour politician Denis Healey.
Handbagged is a light comedy, but for me, too much of the material is duplicated from the production of The Audience go here. The overlapping material is because so little is on record of the Queen's views, but if you haven't seen The Audience, this is of no consequence.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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