In Moira Buffini's Handbagged, we're invited to eavesdrop on Margaret Thatcher’s private weekly audiences with the Queen and promised a peep at what ‘the world’s most powerful women really talked about behind closed palace doors’. Whatever we do glean - and it’s never quite the “Liz vs. Maggie” tussle we’re led to expect - is qualified by the duplication of the characters, so that we have one from the 80s and one from later looking back, both on stage together. This allows plenty of opportunities for witty asides, such as when the (older) Queen testily refers to Thatcher as 'Attlia the Hen.' But most of all, it sidesteps what might really have gone on between these two superwomen - 'I never said that!' the later Queen will say, refuting her younger self - so what really actually was said is never revealed and we’re not offered an imagined reality of their relationship.
Instead, we’re taken on a breakneck gallop through the 11 years of Maggie’s reign. It’s a romp through history, interspersed with burlesque moments when the supporting actors switch roles: Richard Teverson brilliantly alternates between Denis Thatcher, Ronald Regan, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine et al., while Asif Khan is truly chameleon-like as a palace courtier, Michael Shea, and even Nancy Regan in drag. Behind all the pantomime lies a serious political debate which is largely drowned out by Thatcher’s strident hectoring. Similarly, there were moments of poignancy and intimacy that could have been deepened and extended yet were all too easily trivialised by the comedy format.
The impressions throughout were uncannily true to life. The older Queen (Susie Blake) and the older Thatcher (Kate Fahy) resonated in particular. In general, it felt like a play that started as a brilliant one-act sketch but became expanded and lost its sense of what it was. True, for a young person it was an educational history lesson, and for those who’d lived through the Thatcher years a glorious (or nightmarish) trip down memory lane, but you left the theatre feeling that it should have been more one thing or the other; a deep polemic with sharp political relevance for today or an intimate insight into what did take place behind those closed palace doors. You’ll come away from this slick and witty comedy feeling well and truly handbagged.