You know how it is, you wait ages for one and two come along at the same time. After Peter Morgan’s The Audience, centered around the weekly meetings of the Queen with the prime minister in office, a second play, Handbagged by Moira Buffini staged at the Tricycle theatre, talks about the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. If The Audience is the blockbuster version (West End staging, Helen Mirren as the Queen), Handbagged is the indie alternative version. And for all its weaknesses, and there are some, it has the indie spirit and bold ambition to match it.
The premise is simple: the play tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power through her meetings with the Queen. We start with the first meeting, we finish with the last. The simplicity of the approach is deceptive: we have two Queens and two Thatchers, each woman with a younger and older version, all on stage at the same time, power and reflection, decisive action and dry wit. Around the two women (or is it four?), a plethora of other characters are played by two actors: Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Geoffrey Howe, Rupert Murdoch, Gerry Adams, Neil Kinnock, the list goes on. The characters are in the story, comment on the story, explain themselves, step out of the story, become actors who play a story. It’s not as confusing as it sounds, but it’s not lean either. There is too much ground to cover, too much exposition, too much wit and words and changes of direction competing for attention. The play doesn’t suffer from lack of ambition, but there might be too much of it.
Indhu Rubasingham directs with assurance and gives definition to the passage of time and the action. The pace, often frenetic, gives the performance energy (although it discourages contemplation) and the set, with its clean straight lines, lets the play breath.
The six actors have fun with the material: Marion Bailey as the older Queen has the dryness and composure of a thousands lives lived, and Stella Gonet as the older Thatcher is compelling playing the immobility of a frozen soul (the hair and make up is impressive). Fenella Woolgar as the younger Mags maps the restless confidence as it progresses into rigidity and Jeff Rawle produces magic with people appearing and disappearing before your eyes.
The best moments come when the two women try to figure each other out: conflict and resolution over tea and scones, when the layers of meaning are thick. But the one transcendent moment of the play comes towards the end of part one: the miner’s strike is looming over hearts and minds and after the whirlwind of important people, Jeff Rawle steps forward and speaks as himself – but with the words of the playwright and the thoughts of the audience:
Actor 2: Whole communities lost their work. It was a tragedy; it was heartbreaking.
Thatcher: Who said that?
Actor 2: No one important.
It’s a heart-stopping moment, its significance and weight cutting through like a knife.