Neil Dowden in north London
20 September 2022
The timing of this revival by the Kiln Theatre of Moira Buffini’s hit comedy Handbagged has turned out to be extraordinary. The play, which imagines what may have been said behind closed palace doors in the weekly meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was originally scheduled to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee year. The recent death of the Queen has of course hugely changed the context.
Abigail Cruttenden (Liz), Kate Fahy (T), Marion Bailey (Q), Naomi Frederick (Mags).
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
Director Indhu Rubasingham – who is also Artistic Director of the Kiln – came on stage before the start of the show on opening night to explain that they had decided to go ahead, and then introduced a minute’s silence. If Buffini’s portrayal of the Queen had been controversial, there may have been a problem; but in fact it is rather affectionate, and she certainly comes out more favourably than Mrs T.
The play traces the relationship between these two powerful women from Thatcher’s first general election win in 1979 to her removal from the Conservative Party leadership by her own MPs in 1990. Although her eighth PM, it was the first time that the Queen had held an audience with one who was female and also of her own age. The rumour has it that the Queen didn’t warm towards Thatcher, and Handbagged amusingly shows some friction between them stemming partly from contrasting worldviews and partly from differing personalities.
Buffini’s Queen emphasizes “broad tolerance” of views and uniting nations through the Commonwealth, while the confrontational Thatcher imposes a divisive socioeconomic policy and is uncompromising against “the enemies of freedom” whether domestic or foreign. Thatcher protests, “I never said ‘There is no such thing as society’”, to which the Queen responds, “Yes you did. It was in Woman’s Own.” Thatcher insists this was taken out of context, and that she wants people to take personal responsibility. After the Queen questions her about rising social inequality, Thatcher retorts: “Has she forgotten she’s the world’s wealthiest woman?” The Queen also finds Thatcher too “lecturing” with no sense of humour. But of course as the play disarmingly declares, this is all speculation as there is no record of what went on between the pair.
However, as shown, the two did have some things in common apart from being at the top of their spheres in a male-dominated world: a strong attachment to their fathers, wayward sons, and close friends who were killed by Irish republican terrorists (the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten and Thatcher’s original leadership campaign manager Airey Neave). And the Queen expresses respect for Thatcher’s personal courage during the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA and her “Iron Lady” staunchness in standing up to the Soviet Union to help end the Cold War.
Marion Bailey (Q), Abigail Cruttenden (Liz), Naomi Frederick (Mags), Kate Fahy (T).
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
The play touches on many of the significant events during Thatcher’s contentious premiership, such as the independence of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the Falklands War, and the miners’ strike. But this is far from a dull chronological plod through 1980s British history. The Queen and Thatcher are both embodied as younger and older versions (Liz/Q and Mags/T, respectively), with the senior ones reflecting with hindsight on how their more youthful selves behaved and sometimes contradicting them: “This conversation never happened.” Buffini plays with the audience about what is truthful and what is factual.
She has also employed the entertaining device of two male actors multi-roling as they play various prominent figures from that time, including Arthur Scargill, Enoch Powell, Gerry Adams, and Rupert Murdoch. Often they step out of character to interact directly with the audience and express their own views as a counter-narrative to the “official” one. They bring up some of the negative aspects of Thatcherism including the inner-city riots, Section 28, and the poll tax riots. There is much metatheatrical humour, acknowledging that this is an audience with an audience. The Queen says, “Whatever we say must remain between these three walls” and despite Thatcher’s protests insists on having an interval: “Sometimes it’s the best part of the play.”
Handbagged originated at this venue (then called the Tricycle Theatre) as a one-act play in 2010 before the full-length version premiered there in 2013 and later transferred to the West End and New York, winning an Olivier Award. Buffini has tweaked the text for this revival which is mounted by more or less the same production team as the original, with Rubasingham’s assured direction and Richard Kent’s subtly suggested Union Flag design briefly illuminated in red and blue as well as white.
Marion Bailey returns to play Q (as well as being in the original production, she also played the Queen Mother in Netflix’s The Crown) with slightly dotty charm, while Abigail Cruttenden plays Liz with amiable authority. As T, Kate Fahy (who has played the part Off-Broadway) is hilariously dogmatic, with Naomi Frederick’s Mags full of strident determination. All four beautifully walk the tightrope between impersonation and creating their own characters. As Actor 1, Romayne Andrews impresses in switching from Kenneth Kaunda, to Nancy Reagan, to Neil Kinnock with the required accents, while as Actor 2 Richard Cant also gives skilful and versatile impressions of Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan (as a cowboy), and Prince Philip.
Unlike Peter Morgan’s The Audience (which premiered about the same time and shows the Queen meeting with many of her prime ministers through the decades), Handbagged focuses on her meetings with her longest-serving PM in her own 70-year reign. But they both highlight the contrast between the relatively brief holding of power by the head of government and the long-term continuity of the unelected head of state who may be officially neutral but who can still exert a big influence on the nation – as we have seen in the last week or two.