Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Theatre review: Handbagged

It has the misfortune of looking like it's piggy-backing on The Audience (and in fact was almost shelved when that play was announced) but Handbagged actually predates it: Moira Buffini's play started life as an installment of the Tricycle's Women, Power and Politics in 2010.

When that show's director, Indhu Rubasingham, became Artistic Director of the venue, she commissioned a full-length version of the battle of wills between Britain's two most powerful women of the 1980s, the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. The setup remains as eccentric as before: A pairing of the two women in more recent years, Q (Marion Bailey) and T (Stella Gonet) introduce the meetings - primarily at the weekly audience Peter Morgan's play revolved around - between their younger selves Liz (Clare Holman) and Mags (Fenella Woolgar.)

The distinction between who's reliving the scenes and who's commenting on them is a blurry one, as young and old iterations of the women take advantage of the overtly theatrical setup to vie for control of whose version of the story will be told, and how they're going to tell it. Even the interval is a bone of contention - the Queen gets her way, and we get to stretch our legs.

The proviso for the Queen's wealth and power is that she's a mere figurehead, forbidden to publicly have an opinion on political issues, but the impression that the monarch and her first female PM didn't get on has long been popular. Buffini takes this as the basis for her play, painting a gossipy, almost geekily enthusiastic Queen who's stumped to come across the sheer lack of social skills of Woolgar's Mags, who single mindedly lectures in place of conversation. Holman's Liz remains ever the diplomat but Bailey's face speaks volumes, a hilariously sour-faced response to the ideology Thatcher bulldozed over the country. Gonet's T, meanwhile, hailing from after her political downfall, has a suggestion of the dementia that would take hold of her, her impassioned rhetoric blurring into the ranting of a mad old lady.

Rubasingham has kept a playful feel to what is for the most part a very funny play, so meta that it first breaks the fourth wall with a joke about the fourth wall. It imagines how two women with little interest in theatre would handle theatrical devices, and in a reflection of their relationship it becomes a struggle to control them. But this level of distance gets particularly interesting with Jeff Rawle and Big Favourite Round These Parts Neet Mohan, playing actors hired to do all the other parts (and squabbling over who gets to be Kinnock.) This is another area where the fourth wall gets regularly broken as the women stay in character throughout but the men often speak on their own behalf as modern-day actors, speaking up for issues they think the play should cover. In keeping with the overall theme, it's the Queen who wants to let their concerns be heard, Thatcher who instantly shoots them down as insignificant.

Although clearly the good guy of the story, the fact that the Queen is largely a comic foil to Thatcher means Handbagged avoids becoming a hagiography of the monarch - and does remind us regularly that for all her apparent despair at the Tories' attacks on the poor, she herself remained tax-exempt throughout Thatcher's tenure. Still, even before the famous leak (which the Palace has always denied) of her dislike for the PM to the Sunday Times, it's fun to see the Queen sneak little digs at Conservative policy into her Christmas speech. And on a side note it's interesting to see, even in a show that's rather silly at its heart, how Rubasingham keeps the comic effect of Mohan dragging up as Nancy Reagan just to his first appearance, the fact that there's a man in a dress on stage for a few scenes being treated in an admirably matter-of-fact way.

Handbagged hasn't quite made a smooth transition from extended sketch to full length play, and at times has the awkward feel of somehow being both stretched further than it can manage, and of not covering all the ground it should. But there's great performances from all six actors - the quartet don't quite go for all-out impressions of the powerful women but Woolgar's Mags really is quite uncannily accurate - and a very funny piece of entertainment with a tangible satirical bite behind the humour.

Handbagged by Moira Buffini is booking until the 16th of November at the Tricycle Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval (whether Mrs T likes it or not.)

1 comment:

  1. Nonsense, the play runs seamlessly, is well written with moments of poignancy and real humour with performances that are quite simply stellar!