Moira Buffini‘s political satire, Handbagged, invents what happened during the infamous meetings between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, during her term as Prime Minister from 1979 – 1990. We still feel the ramifications of Thatcher’s hugely divisive policies today. The closure of coal mines and the introduction of poll tax devastated working-class families. With strikes and riots defining her era, “We lost the feeling that we were all in it together“.
Rendering a frosty relationship between the monarch and “that bloody woman”, Handbagged lets you into the minds of Britain’s two most powerful women, showing their responses to events including the Falklands War, IRA bombings, the Cold War, South African apartheid, Reagan’s presidency, and Charles and Diana’s wedding.
The narrative is constructed well, with older incarnations of the characters nostalgically revisiting their younger years, as they are joined on stage by younger Queen Liz (Caroline Harker) and Mags (Alice Selwyn). Providing a running commentary, older Queen and Thatcher interrupt proceedings, providing amusing asides, by exclaiming “I never said that!” or the Queen admitting that she regularly “tuned out” whenever Thatcher slipped into “lecturing mode“.
The four central actors give strong performances, brilliantly inflecting their voices to match the characters they portray. They are entirely convincing in the roles, which is particularly evident when Selwyn and Crowden perform Thatcher’s iconic speeches. The pair effectively portray Thatcher’s reputation as ‘The Iron Lady’. There is an irrepressible coldness when Thatcher sees the Poll Tax as being a positive policy, “My community charge is the flagship of the Thatcher fleet”. Her steely resolution is also discernible as she faces a leadership challenge during her third term. Ironically reflecting our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, the line “It is rare to see a leader know when it’s time to go” receives murmurs of agreement from the audience.
Nevertheless, it is the Queen who gets the best lines, creating a fantastic rivalry with sharp insults, such as “One suspects that she’s a racist”, in response to Thatcher’s refusal to apply sanctions during the South African apartheid. This is a fun-loving, quick-witted Queen, who adores horses and Corgis, and offers cups of tea at awkward moments. Despite this endearing charm, there is no doubt who is in charge! Using her annual Christmas message to subtly undermine her government, this Queen shows that being a monarch isn’t just shaking hands with the public.
Unfortunately, the comedy of Handbagged is heavily reliant on its audience having lived through Thatcher’s time in office. Caricatures of notable political figureheads are provided by supporting actors Jahvel Hall and Andy Seacombe, who play a multitude of characters like Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Michael Heseltine, Rupert Murdoch, and Enoch Powell. Although they deftly switch between characters, a younger audience would fail to appreciate the comedy of their impressions, unless they are familiar with Thatcher and her backbenchers.
As I didn’t live through the events depicted in Handbagged, a lot of its comedy is lost on me. Born in 1986, the first Prime Minister within my living memory is John Major. Obviously I know who Thatcher is. Being a working-class northerner, the consequences of her policies are all too clear, and there is strong hostility felt towards her in my family. Growing up, I never knew why. It was watching Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age that educated me about the devastation pit closures in the 1980s had on working-class northerners. As such, Seacombe’s Arthur Scargill impression is the only one that I recognised.
Thankfully, Jahvel Hall‘s character repeatedly interjects proceedings, by offering context to the younger audience members. Providing the history of events to those who didn’t experience them is incredibly useful, particularly concerning the history of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).The problem with this generational disparity is that, for its younger audience members, Handbagged feels more like an interesting history lesson than a comedy.
The success of Buffini’s comedy entirely depends on the age of its audience. Although there were only a handful of parts where I laughed, the older generations found it hugely entertaining, and laughed throughout.