Handbagged (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: September 16, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Writer: Moira Buffini

Director: Indhu Rubasingham

⭐️⭐️⭐️

A few months after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, a satire on the relationship between the former Prime Minister and her Monarch, premiered at the Kiln Theatre (then named the Tricycle) and became an instant hit, later transferring to the West End. Sadly and purely by coincidence, director Indhu Rubasingham’s revival of her own production arrives immediately after the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Respectful satire, perhaps an oxymoron, is difficult to pull off in normal circumstances, but, at this time more than ever, the emphasis has to be on respect, thereby leaving Rubasingham with the trickiest of balancing acts. Given little time to come to terms with the new reality, the production achieves its goals without being noticeably restrained and it is unlikely to cause offence to anyone, except, perhaps, surviving hard core Thatcherites. 

The play’s premiere followed hot on the heels of Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which also examined HM/PM relationships, but veering further towards historical accuracy than is made possible by Buffini’s mocking style. Her play chronicles Mrs Thatcher’s period in office from May 1979 to November 1990; in those years, the Queen is played by Abigail Cruttenden and the Prime Minister by Naomi Frederick.

Buffini widens the play’s perspective with the very effective device of having an older Queen and ex-PM providing a commentary and distinguishing their versions of the truth from myths. Marion Bailey reprises her role as the older Queen, having played the Queen Mother in the Netflix series The Crown in the intervening years.  Kate Fahy is the older PM. The impersonations and characterisations are spot-on, matching popular perceptions of the two ladies perfectly. Her Majesty sits calmly at the top of the social ladder, striving to understand what is going on below and Mrs T is the arrogant and stubborn social climber who declares: “…I don’t notice I’m a woman”.

All four are on stage for almost the entire production, with Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant sharing all the male roles (plus that of a bearded Nancy Reagan) between them. They make a formidable comedy double act in their own right. Richard Kent’s set design has simple grandeur, with piled-high geometric shapes towering behind a white thrust stage..

The play has a serious core as the characters debate inner city riots, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, Section 28, Apartheid, the Poll Tax and so on. In one corner, Mrs T defends her pursuit of strict dogma and, in the opposite corner, the Monarch pleads for compassion. We sense that Buffini is on the side of her Queen. When politics threatens to consume the play, as in the later stages of the first act, a liberal sprinkling of good jokes comes to the rescue and, by the end, we are left with the impression that a certain amount of strained affection came to exist between the two protagonists.

When it is funny the play resembles a decades old episode of Spitting Image. When it is serious, it revisits the issues of what is probably already the most talked over and dramatised decade in our country’s peacetime history. In consequence, dated humour and themes, along with over-familiarity were already working against this revival even before it was struck by the misfortune of bad timing, but it still raises a fair number of chuckles anyway.

Performance date: 15 September 2022

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