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Handbagged

by on 19 May 2019

The Royal We

Handbagged

by Moira Buffini

Teddington Theatre Club, Hampton Hill Theatre until 24th May

Review by Andrew Lawston

The 1980s are back. Hampton Hill Theatre’s stage is littered with portable televisions and VCRs, while a single giant screen hangs above a faded Union Jack backdrop and plays Cyndi Lauper videos. Meanwhile a corner set with wonderful cut-down walls features a suitably regal tea set. The stage is set for the figure who, for good or ill, embodies the 1980s for many in Britain.

When Margaret Thatcher strides on stage with a triumphant wave, in trademark blue suit, the audience isn’t quite sure how to react. There are a few boos, and a few nervous laughs at the booing. It’s telling that almost two decades after her resignation as Prime Minister, and six years after her death at the age of 87, people are still unsure whether it’s safe yet to boo Margaret Thatcher.

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Teddington Theatre Club’s ambitious new production of Moira Buffini’s play Handbagged is well aware of the iconic status of its two central characters. The play imagines the weekly meetings between the Queen and Thatcher more or less chronologically throughout the course of the Iron Lady’s premiership, with their younger and older selves standing side by side, commentating on and often contradicting their counterparts’ attitudes. It is speculative, educational, and very funny indeed.

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The lead characters here are striking evocations of the real people depicted, without ever descending into caricature. Tracy Frankson and Heather Stockwell portray the older and younger Queen Elizabeth II as a concerned and compassionate monarch, who seems constantly to be repressing a wicked sense of humour, expressed in part through Heather Stockwell’s frequent literal winks to the audience. The continuity between the two performances strikes a chord with Frankson’s repeated observation as the older Queen that she has seen so many Prime Ministers come and go, over the long years of her reign.

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There is more of a contrast between the younger “Mags” in a playful performance from Helen Geldert and the more controlled “T” played by Jane Marcus. While both make use of the same vocal mannerisms and gestures, the older Thatcher is more rigid, calcified, hard-baked into our collective image of the Iron Lady. Her character’s development is referred to frequently by the text, and is also signalled by the evolution of her wardrobe, courtesy of Zoe Harvey-Lee. Helen Geldert’s sleeveless blue jacket and colourful blouse as Mags is almost casual next to the buttoned up iconic blue suit of Jane Marcus’s T. In general, the older characters seem to depict our public perceptions of these two powerful women, while their younger counterparts are an attempt to convey their personal characters.

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The two Thatchers and two Elizabeths are supported by Actor 1 (Lizzie Lattimore) and Actor 2 (Jim Trimmer), who take on an impressive repertoire of parts ranging from Dennis Thatcher through to Kenneth Clarke, but they squabble over who gets to play Neil Kinnock. When the full cast is on stage, arguments break out over which events deserve to be narrated, highlighting what a divisive time the period was for British society. Actor 1 tends to cast a historian’s eye over proceedings, for the benefit of members of the audience who didn’t live through the events depicted, while Actor 2 is a world-weary figure who presents his own perspective on the period.

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It should also be noted that Lizzie Lattimore is additionally credited as the voice coach, and this must have been something of an undertaking in itself for a play which requires not just the two Queens and Thatchers, but also creditable Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American and Australian accents (and more than a couple of regional English accents) for Actor 1 and Actor 2.

Between scenes the central screen lights up with clips from the evening news and contemporary music videos, grounding the discussions in their era even more firmly than the performances of these well-known figures. One small technical glitch aside, the production is slick and runs at a blistering pace, with Harri Osborne’s stage management team keeping things moving around the small cast. This is no mean feat given the impressively ambitious set designed by Patrick Troughton, which offers many surprises throughout the show.

Ben Clare’s direction ensures the cast make full use of the set’s potential, and the show’s pace is relentless with all six performers on top of their cues throughout.

As this is a comedy dealing with such a divisive figure, Handbagged strikes a difficult balance in order to avoid sliding into either Spitting Image mockery or mawkish hagiography (there is no danger at all of this latter). Undeniable achievements such as the end of the Cold War are alluded to, and tragedies such as the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing offer a glimpse of humanity in Thatcher, but there is no shying away from the times when the Iron Lady was on the wrong side of history, most clearly with the poll tax riots and the reluctance to take a tougher line on Apartheid in South Africa. By the end of the performance I’m still not sure whether it’s safe yet to boo Margaret Thatcher, but finally we are able to laugh at her.

This opening night coincided with this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, and as such it certainly deserves to be awarded douze points.

Andrew Lawston
May 2019

Photography by Cath Messum

From → Drama, Reviews

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