Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Handbagged’, which is at The New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 28th September.
Why settle for one Margaret Thatcher when you can have two?
There are two Maggies, two Her Majesties (and four handbags) stalking the stage at the New Vic this month – in the revival of Moira Buffini’s wicked comedy about their relationship.
You have to feel sorry Queen Elizabeth. Imagine being obliged to have someone you really can’t bear round for tea 572 times? Especially as she refuses to sit down…and keeps cutting you off to tell you it’s her country not the yours. The simple set has a crown hovering over a map of the kingdom. But is it Lizze’s … or Maggie’s?
In her brilliantly conceived, impeccably researched, exquisitely constructed and painfully funny play, directed by her sister Fiona, Miss Buffini uses the cunning device of casting two women as Mrs Thatcher. Zoe Aldrich plays her in her prime…living through the tumultuous 11 years in which she wielded power. Jan Goodman looks on as the older version, blessed with hindsight and bedevilled by the desire to re-write her history.
It’s the same at The Palace. Melissa Collier plays a rather mumsy monarch navigating the frightful 80s as they happened, whilst the imperious Louise Bangay is much more tarte and circumspect as she reflects on one of the least happy decades of her reign.
We are on an express train rattling though Thatcher’s Britain. But we don’t stop at all the stations…especially the ones the Prime Minister would rather not dwell at.
They were the same age … and in the gauche re-enactment of their first meeting, HMQ congratulates TBW on quoting St Frances of Assisi on the steps of Number 10 … whilst Thatcher complains that her teeth ach from smiling. But the cordiality doesn’t last, as the play drops in on so many inglorious moments of Mrs. Thatcher reign.
The Falkland’s Conflict was Thatcher’s war … but it was The Queen’s son who fought in it. And the fact that it was Thatcher who took the returning salute rather than Her Majesty still rankles at Windsor. And when Thatcher tries to justify her hard line in the Miner’s Strike, Her Majesty feels desperately sorry for the miners’ wives.
This selective compendium of historic detail lays bare an underlying tension between the two … the Queen’s conscience holding firm whilst Thatcher’s hardens. After the Brighton Bomb the Queen had to phone Thatcher to see if her Government had been slaughtered or not. Thatcher didn’t think to phone the Palace. And the Queen couldn’t see how the Poll Tax could possibly work and told her Prime Minister so, to no avail.
The four-handed dialogue is witty and incisive. But the play is beautifully broadened by the two male actors who play everyone else; from Dennis Thatcher to Rupert Murdoch and Kenneth Kaunda to Nancy Reagan (really). Paul Mundell and Ashley Gerlach are fantastically funny, as they rocket from role to role. Image Dennis’ face when he discovers he must have a Margaret on each arm. Whilst Michael Shea’s squirming (and wholly insincere) apology after he’s leaked the news that Elizabeth really can’t bear Margaret (information that is pivotal to this play) is so terribly awkward it raises hackles all round. Thank goodness for Michael Heseltine’s hair to restore laugher.
The play has so many resonances today. Tory MP’s resigned in their droves back then too. Political parties were hopelessly divided. We still have maniacally dangerous world leaders. Prejudice and apartheid still haunt us and Robert Mugabe is still in the news. Nothing changes. If only Boris had a handbag (and I have no evidence he hasn’t) he could slip into this play too.