It is somewhat apt that Handbagged is currently playing at the Oldham Coliseum, a story that centres on the supposedly fractious relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II during the time of the former Tory leader’s tenure as Prime Minister. Apt because it is 40 years since the Iron Lady was swept into power and with it began one of the most influential and significant periods of British history.
Writer Moira Buffini had wanted to shine the spotlight on the dynamic relationship between the two women, who had been born in the same year and had ended up in the two most significant positions in 1980s Britain. That relationship against the backdrop of the 80s, which saw civil disobedience manifest itself in inner city riots, the Miners strike and the Poll Tax along with momentous international events that saw crisis in Zimbabwe and the Falklands. Juxtaposed with this was the Royal Family’s own monumental events, one of which saw Prince Charles and Diana marry in one of the most watched iconic events around the world.
The premise of the play sees the main protagonists from the era in question (the 1980s versions of Margaret Thatcher and The Queen) onstage detailing some of the main talking points of the time. Alongside them however are their more older versions, which cleverly allows the play to find its ability to provide context and most of all to understand the discourse. Buffini herself remarked that this was an important development in getting the show to work:
“I put them in a theatre and got them talking to one another, then it became apparent that I would need more than one Thatcher and more than one Queen to tell the story. Nobody knows what was going on in their weekly meetings … The Fact that you’ve got one Thatcher contradicting the other, or one Queen misremembering and being corrected by herself seems to be how memory works and how political myths are made”
Of course this play is all about conversations. Primarily it centres around the traditional weekly meeting between Prime Minister and Monarch, but in essence there is very little conversing that happens between the main characters. Instead this is a piece where the talking that really matters is between those on stage and those off it. It wonderfully breaks the fourth wall by involving the audience as both Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth talk directly to the house, shamelessly indulging in that connection with some wonderfully funny moments at times.
It’s a notable cast with Caroline Harker and Alice Selwyn playing the younger versions of the Majesty and Thatcher respectively, whilst the older version are played by Susan Penhaligon and Sarah Crowden. All four play up to the audience, regaling us about these historical events, giving it an extra dimension with the inner thoughts of the two most important figures from that time.
Doing justice to this period and the relationship itself was always going to be a challenge in a two hour play. Buffini’s inclusion of the two male actors – Jahvel Hall and Andy Secombe play a variety of roles including Prince Philip, Arthur Scargill, Neil Kinnock to mention a few – allowed the political complexities to be dumbed down just enough for a cohesive thread to emerge.
“They represent us, ordinary people, less powerful, trying to get their opinions heard and usually feeling they are not being listened to.”
Political satire and political theatre is often the staple of many splendid productions that find themselves sometimes at odds with implementing a political message that often takes the focus away from the main story. Productions as overtly political as Handbagged do not come with this baggage, there is no cunning metaphor or subverted themes to dissect, this is as political as it comes and in our turbulent political times – we the audience are richer for it!
Verdict: Moira Buffini’s clever script is the real star of the show as she delves into the fraught relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II. Often funny and at times quite thought provoking, this production is simply a delight.