Review of Handbagged

Handbagged by Moira Buffini. Directed by Pauline and Dan Armour

Review by John Maslen

My joy at breaking out of pandemic prison to see live theatre again was initially tempered by apprehension at the choice of production I had elected to see.  A play featuring Margaret Thatcher! Please not another weary left wing diatribe telling us all how dreadful the era was!  But of course it was nothing of the sort: – I had been vaguely aware of the piece without taking sufficient notice so I was delightfully surprised.

HANDBAGGED is of course a fascinating study in the imagined relationship between arguably the two most famous women in the world at one particular time in recent history.  It allows us as an audience to identify with the real people portrayed and concur or otherwise with the writer’s (Moira Buffini) observations as to the warmth/indifference/tolerance/like or dislike in their regard for each other.  And having mentioned Margaret Thatcher, the other most famous person is of course Queen Elizabeth II.  The intriguing anomaly is that anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that although the Monarch and the Prime Minister had seemingly all the ingredients for a meaningful friendship – age, gender, success, and notoriety – there was little meeting of hearts and minds and the narrative bends to this theme.

An ensemble cast at the socially distanced, hand sanitised, QR code scanned and one-way systemed Bromley Little Theatre on a grey and rainy Friday night gave an excellent interpretation of the play to a necessarily sparse (ie socially distanced) audience.  The cast and production crew deserved a larger audience for their execution of characters familiar to us all, displayed with elan, flair and character.

The supreme irony of the premise is that the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is generally thought to have affected a more regal, formal, and high blown tone in exchanges with the Monarch than shown by the Queen herself, despite the royal persona incorporating depths of protocol, procedure and privilege which can scarcely be matched to any extent by those outside the hallowed circles.

A theatrical device which I thought generally worked well is the players’ interaction directly with the audience in a confiding and conversational fashion – this was put to good use in the play and allows the audience to empathise and connect with the character.  This was nicely effected by Pauline Armour playing Queen Elizabeth with a degree of insouciance and practicality and by Sue Higginson playing Margaret Thatcher.  An aside on Sue Higginson and also Julie Binysh both playing Mrs Thatcher- if you had been away from planet Earth since the mid-1980s and suddenly arrived back in recent weeks you would be forgiven for thinking you were seeing Mrs T alive and well on stage so uncannily accurate in physicality, voice, movement, and demeanour were their respective portrayals.

There were two Mrs Thatchers as mentioned and two Queens – Debbie Griffiths played the younger incarnation of the Queen alongside Pauline Armour.  I thought this device had hits and misses. Firstly,  I assume part of the point was to illustrate the many contradictions of the actions and behaviour of Mrs Thatcher on a devil or angel basis. Secondly, perhaps it was to contrast the more relaxed and worldly Queen as she appears now with the glacial yet friendly and stiffly confident persona of her younger self ably illustrated in Debbie Griffiths’ performance.  My reservation is that the play may have been stronger and more accessible to an audience with one of each character and some more cameos of people from public life – this I hasten to add a reflection on the play not the playing!

The mechanics of the play calls for a sharp change in pace and presentation in near cameo roles to provide a refreshing counterpoint, and the two male actors supplementing and supporting the Thatchers and the Queens were both delightfully versatile and accomplished in their portrayals of various characters.  Dave Oatley slipped effortlessly into his main role of a cheerful and accommodating Dennis Thatcher and morphed smoothly into the urbanity of Peter Carrington – a telling inclusion from the playwright that the spouse of the Prime Minister was considered essential to the imagined narrative but not the consort of the Queen – could this have been a comment subconscious or otherwise on the underlying strength and depth of the monarchy?

Howie Ripley clearly enjoyed himself enormously with a bravura display of character cameos veering wildly from an obedient and respectful courtier to Kenneth Kaunda president of Gambia.  In the drawing of characters around that time peripheral to, or integral to, the times, it felt from my audience chair that the sequence with the Reagans was a little overplayed and could have been trimmed – again an aspect of the writing rather than production values.

The set was simple but graceful echoing the majesty and grandeur of the high end of British public life.  Dan Armour’s direction was crisp and sure footed and contributed with certainty to a very enjoyable and interesting evening at the theatre.

Commendations to all those at BLT who overcame and accommodated Covid restrictions to present and stage the play and acknowledgements are deserved for Tony Reeve and Jan Greenhough for set design and painting; Tony Jenner for set construction; Emma Christmas for lighting design; Simon Tyrell-Lewis for sound design and operation; Piers Newman operating lighting; Dave Jones stage managing; and, Stevie Hughes for the unsettling montage on programme and poster design!

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