Theatre Royal Windsor (venue)
19 July 2018 (released)
21 June 2018
Although the action opens with the instantly recognisable Mrs Thatcher holding forth in the manner so familiar from the peak of her career, we quickly adjust our expectations as she segues into an inner monologue, pondering “the men” at the palace (or is it all men?) and the peculiar controlling power that she has over them. The Queen offers her a chair, and despite Mrs T’s determination to remain standing in her power pose, HM has already dragged it into the room, telling her, “I’ve brought it now”. As they survey the audience, HM looks forward to the interval, which Mrs T sees as a pointless waste of time.
So the intriguing interplay between arguably the two most influential women of twentieth century Britain is set up, but they are soon joined on stage by their younger (well, middle-aged) selves, adding further perspectives, allowing them to be both in “the thick of it” while also looking back from old age on their primes.
Moira Buffini’s play is both fascinating and funny. The very rich material of these two women, forced together by their roles, is cleverly exploited so as to entertain but also to provide insight, criticism, admiration, and even pity. Expanded from a one act original, I think Handbagged works because it operates on many levels, prompting both laughter and reflection; this successfully lifts it above a mere comic ramble through the current affairs of the time, although it may occasionally resemble a grown up Horrible Histories, particularly when the older Mrs T leans towards the audience to utter “I never said that!”
Hilary Harwood is wonderfully accurate as the older Margaret, maintaining that oddly aggressive stance and the “classic” voice to the point of total conviction, while Claire Louise Amias provides the more nuanced role of Mrs Thatcher in office, with her drive seemingly irresistible, yet, inevitably, vulnerable. Maggie Robson’s Queen is that which with we are now familiar, the self-assurance of her status enhanced by old age, doubly senior. The younger Queen is portrayed by Hannah Vesty with that little smile on her face throughout, the one that says she knows exactly who she is and what she is doing. In contrast to the four (two) women, the two male members of the cast portray the men (plus Nancy Reagan) in their lives, Denis, the Duke, Ronald, Rupert, and they fight over who will play Neil Kinnock – an excellent joke that perfectly illustrates the many layers of thought provoking irony that this play ably presents.
Handbagged runs until the 23rd June at the Theatre Royal, and is the first of six plays in six weeks as part of the Made for Windsor season.