For just over ten years, The Queen and her then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, were the two most powerful women in Britain. Born just six months apart, one was born into her role whilst the other chose it. One, despite the most privileged upbringing imaginable, hovered, and indeed still does, somewhere in the political centre, even, dare I say it, leaning slightly left. The other, despite being the daughter of a shop keeper, went on to become a Prime Minister viewed, probably correctly, as one of the most controversial and right-wing Britain has ever seen.
What went on in the weekly meetings between the two of them, closely guarded by the Palace, will never be divulged, leaving us only with speculation. Which is where Moira Buffini’s Oliver Award winning comedy Handbagged comes in. Currently at the Strand’s Vaudeville Theatre, having successfully transferred from the Tricycle, its script functions as an imagining of what may or may not have been said at those meetings, based on historical context and what was in the press at the time. And probably some guesswork and artistic license to boot. Despite its focus on just two characters, the play has a cast of six. Each of the leading ladies is portrayed by two actresses apiece, as each has both an older and a younger self – usually all on stage at the same time. The Queen is played by both Marion Bailey as her older self, and by Lucy Robinson as her younger counterpart, whilst Fenella Woolgar and Stella Gonet take on the younger and older PM respectively. Actors Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle then divide the remaining roles up between them.
Unsurprisingly, however, it is the four women, and the excellent script they’re gifted with that really carries this play. Not a line is delivered out of place- each is deployed with impeccable comic timing as the two women argue with restraint, and even politeness over major political issues, as well as struggling to even make connect enough to make basic conversation. Their inability to find a mutually enjoyable choice of cake for their meetings is a particularly revealing example. The meta-theatrical element of having two women portraying each leading lady also allows for some deliciously barbed disagreements in all directions, even between older and younger versions of the same character, really helping the alleged ‘clashes’ leap off the page into a live, comic existence. The general hilarity is only added to by the spooky accuracy of each actress’s portrayal of the political and historical icons. Fenella Woolgar as Mags, the younger of the two Margarets, particularly shines, although really I’m splitting immaculately coiffured hairs.
Despite all the comedy, and believe me there’s plenty of it, this play is also really quite interesting, covering the entire span of the Iron Lady’s rule, with mentions of riots, apartheid, Balmoral and Rupert Murdoch, to name but a few. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, I knew relatively little about the 80s political struggles which really defined Thatcher’s time in office. It was also worthwhile to see the Queen’s own troubles, with Charles and Diana and the Commonwealth mapped against Thatcher’s political timeline, as this only added to the contrast between the two women, and to the verging on tender poignancy with which their latest years are covered in the latter quarter of the play.
It was precisely this history, however, that a great deal of my fellow audience members seemed to struggle with. I’ve been trying ever since leaving the theatre to block out one particularly loud American tourist whispering, if you can call it that, ‘Is this before or after Victoria?’ to the person sat next to her. Though it pains me to admit it, perhaps she’s got a point. Throughout Handbagged, Neet Moham, as the youngest member of the cast, alludes to events the ‘younger members of the audience’ might not know about, explaining it and bringing them back in. It occurred to me, seeing just how many tourists were in the audience, that an odd ‘and the tourists amongst you won’t know this’ explanation or two might have helped considerably. As a comedy, Handbagged is hard to fault. It just may have benefited from being slightly more inclusive in some places, great that it is for a knowledgeable British audience that the reference are so specific- if only so that more people could laugh as heartily at the jokes as the rest of us were.
Really, though, that is a small quibble in the context of what is an immensely quick witted, and astonishingly well performed play. The characterisation is excellent, and never strays into ‘handbags at dawn’ middle aged warring women caricatures, despite what the taglines say. As the Queen herself says, when asked if the meetings are different because the new PM is a woman, ‘No. It is different because she is Mrs Thatcher.’
The play’s greatest success lies in how clearly it pulls that off. It’s fun, but clever fun- a real insight into what might have gone on between the two formidable leaders.
And you don’t even have to sit around a rainy Balmoral picnic to get it.
Handbagged is running at the Vaudeville Theatre until 2 August.