So what really went on at Buckingham Palace when the Margaret Thatcher met the Queen for the Prime Minister's audiences? Many have speculated, but none as wryly, wittily or cleverly as Moira Buffini in her intriguing piece of meta-theatre, Handbagged.
Oxford Theatre Guild have taken it on as their early autumn production at the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street this week, complete with near-identical iconic handbags. Donna Doubtfire and Katherine Woodward play a younger and an older version of Her Majesty, Fleur Yerbury-Hodgson and Philippa Bilton Vose the same of Thatcher; Robert Hoare and Paul Clifford play more than a dozen of the people who crossed paths – or swords – with them over Thatcher's time as PM in the 1980s.
The action, such as it is, takes place with minimal staging, but punctuated by images on a screen, music and sound effects, and ticker-tape-like clues to what comes next. The 1980s were a time of incident and drama, often the direct result of Thatcher's actions, and the play revisits them through the perspective of the monarch and premier and the discussions that took place between them, with interpolations from Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Gerry Adams, Geoffrey Howe, Rupert Murdoch and several others, all with appropriate accents and body language. There's even a cameo – or possibly cartoon – of Nancy Reagan, known for being almost skeletally thin and definitely female, from Robert Hoare, who is neither. And Paul Clifford delivered his one line as Prince Philip with great relish.
The acoustics at the Wesley Memorial do the actors no favours; at times on the first night I struggled to hear when the actors moved to the back of the playing area. But I heard enough to know that they pulled off the difficult task of playing (not quite impersonating) iconic characters with conviction. They were helped by costume and hairdos which could have come straight out of Buck House or Number Ten, but the voices were all their own, right down to the change in timbre that comes with age. The older Thatcher was lower pitched and more mellifluous than the younger; the older Queen more mellow and the younger more jaunty. All four actors captured the sense of buttoned-down emotion for which both women are known.
The play deals with big issues over an eventful decade. More power to Oxford Theatre Guild for making those issues into an entertaining evening.