BWW Review: HANDBAGGED, Jack Studio Theatre
For those of us who thought that one Mrs Thatcher was one too many, it's disconcerting to see two of her on stage, the blue suit just so, the hair just so and the voice just so, so, so very much. But there she is and I immediately thought that we won't see two Mrs Mays on stage in 2054 - such were the unique qualities of Britain's first female Prime Minister.
Moira Buffini's award-winning Handbagged goes some of the way to explaining the Cult of Mrs Thatcher (at the time, it was called "Thatcherism" - pace Marxism - but it was never a political philosophy, it was more a personal adoration). It does so through imagining the content of the PM's weekly meetings with HM, supplemented by a few walk-ons by other political figures better to oil the narrative cogs. The two Thatchers are balanced by two Queen Elizabeths, the older versions of the women commenting on their younger selves' conversations: the older Margaret all insecure assertions of her younger version's political and moral rectitude; the older Elizabeth an eccentric, quick-witted lady more interested in the audience and the interval than her place in history.
It's a slightly tricksy structure that puts some strain on the actors, the constant interrupting requiring pinpoint timing that wasn't always as razor sharp as it might be the night I saw the play. It's all a bit meta, though that's signalled very clearly early on when we're told that anything said "stays between these three walls". (Geddit!)
Sarah Tortell and Fiona McGahren, as the younger women, show us the awkwardness of the relationship. The Queen had never sat down with another woman as Prime Minister, but that was the least of her concerns. Mrs Thatcher was intensely political, with her provincial, petit bourgeois roots the equivalent of today's white van man, "common" sense the arbiter of all arguments and Little Englander nationalism to boot. The Queen, all noblesse oblige towards her beloved Commonwealth and upper class roughing it while shooting with dogs on the estate, struggled to find something to talk about that would not be dismissed as inconsequential or a version of the woolly liberalism of entitlement Mrs Thatcher so despised.
Standing either side of the stage, the older women are polar opposites in every sense. Sue Higginson's Thatcher barks, hectoring us, protecting the legacy, often telling us that "I didn't say that!" Pauline Armour's grey haired Elizabeth is only ever a step away from asking us on stage for a cup of tea and proffering a "And what do you do?' enquiry.
Howie Ripley and Mark Steere play a revolving cast of political and non-political characters, freely admitting to us that many are broad caricatures and occasionally bickering between themselves about who gets to play whom - well, it's meta innit? Of course, Steere's Ronald Reagan gets all the best jokes as he did in real life - and all the worst double-crosses, America First, second and third even then.
The main events of Thatcher's 11 years at Number 10 weave in and out of the conversations (with Ripley stepping out of character at times to ensure that the Miners' Strike and 1981's inner city riots are not glossed over) and it's a jolt to be reminded of how close the IRA came to wiping out the Cabinet at Brighton in 1983. Mrs Thatcher delivered a speech later that same day, sticking to her mantra of not giving an inch (at least in public) to terrorism. The traditional stiff upper lip had yet to yield to post-Diana wallowing in misery.
Does it all add up? Well, much depends on whether you were there at the time and how your views were formed. Possibly because so much of Mrs Thatcher's public demeanour was artfully crafted for television, Buffini's artful crafting of her stage Mrs Thatchers ring true - but I wonder if Carol and Mark would agree? However, I remained unconvinced by The Queens. Despite extracts from the Christmas messages being quoted, I struggled to buy this Guardianista (if not Guardian-reading) liberal monarch calling out Mrs Thatcher as a racist. Amusing though.
There are plenty of laughs in this show, though I'd advise anyone under the age of 40 to bone up on 80s politics with a quick scan of a wikipedia page or two if they want to get all the jokes. Though coming in at over two hours and rather static and talky, director Dan Armour ensures that it neither drags nor sags, but I was glad it finished when it did - no more theatrical tricks to keep up with! For the many who would have liked to have seen this show when it played in the West End in 2014 (including me!) First Knight Theatre's intimate revival does not disappoint.
And what a pleasant change it makes to laugh at politics instead of grimacing in these grim uncertain times.
Photo Dave Jones