King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 7 November 2015
Then touring until 5 December
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Handbagged is an inventive, very funny and surprisingly subtle piece of theatre. Moira Buffini’s West End hit, originally at the Tricycle Theatre, deals with the famously fractious relationship between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher during the latter’s three terms as Prime Minister.
Both characters are played by two actors – Susie Blake and Kate Fahy as the older versions, with Emma Handy and Sanchia McCormack as their younger equivalents. Interestingly, all four are on stage throughout the performance, with the senior performers often commenting on dialogue between their juniors, claiming that what is being said does not reflect the reality of their meetings.
It becomes clear that what we are seeing is often not what was actually said, but what they would have liked to say – and sometimes not even that. This cleverly ensures that the audience constantly have to question received views of history and re-inspect their own prejudices.
There is some very clever writing from Buffini here. Far from being a realistic historical re-enactment, this is a multi-layered piece, political without being dry, and self-referential without being self-indulgent.
The four actors in the two lead roles are impressive both individually and collectively. Fahy’s performance is on one level a chillingly accurate portrayal of Thatcher, with the familiar voice and mannerisms intact. However, it is also a surprisingly subtle portrayal, helped enormously by the contrast with McCormack’s marginally softer, more defensive playing.
There is a similar clever contrast with the two Elizabeths. Handy’s Liz is more open and eager, while the excellent Blake is altogether more tetchy, often skewering both Mrs T and her younger self with withering, beautifully-timed putdowns.
Both women are given a measure of dignity, even sympathy, while not escaping criticism. Both are presented as self-absorbed. Thatcher’s more monomaniac side, and ER’s prissy questioning of a taxation system from which she is exempt, are clearly on view, but it is testament to Buffini’s skill that she extracts a great deal of comedy from the situation without resorting to obvious caricature.
Such broad-brush characterisation certainly is in evidence in the various roles played by the two male members of the cast. Asif Khan and Richard Teverson both get through a huge variety of parts, from Rupert Murdoch to Nancy Reagan, and much of the historical exposition falls to them. These diversions mean that experience or knowledge of the period portrayed, while helpful to audiences, is not obligatory.
Both men display boundless energy and comic invention, while once again there is an intriguing and even subversive edge to much of the writing. Teverson’s Denis Thatcher at first seems like the amiable, Bertie Woosterish bumbler he is so often portrayed as (but quite clearly wasn’t), before being quickly and horribly undercut. Meanwhile, Khan, still dressed in his Nancy Reagan drag, has a brief turn as Enoch Powell that renders Powell entirely ludicrous without any comment being necessary.
Not all of the characterisations are effective, and some of the accents are way off the mark, but this is acknowledged by the performers themselves in a production that constantly plays with its own theatricality.
From the moment early on when Blake’s Queen declares ‘anything you say will stay within these three walls’ to bickering over whether there should be an interval, there is a tricksiness that is never overdone but is refreshingly different for a large-scale touring production, perhaps betraying the piece’s off-West End origins. Once again, this helps to introduce ever-shifting layers of truth and reality, while referencing Mrs Thatcher’s legendary antipathy to the arts in general and theatre in particular.
Indhu Rubasingham’s direction is endlessly inventive, exemplary in the way the cast is deployed and keeping everything flowing without resorting to gimmicks. Richard Kent’s set – a stylised Union flag comprised of wooden slats – is striking and cleverly non-specific, even if it undoubtedly has different connotations on a stage in Scotland from one in London, particularly in 2015.
Indeed, there is an undeniable feeling, even if the play deals with recent history and features some characters who are still with us, that the whole thing is a message from another time and another place – albeit one whose preoccupations and effects still seem horribly relevant today.
At times, the desire to be fair leads to some of it becoming a little mealy-mouthed towards the central characters. And when it comes down to it, how many people really know – or care – what the Queen’s real political views are? It stretches credulity that she could be the liberal figure this play requires her to be as a counterbalance to Thatcher. There is also the inescapable impression that, at two acts and two hours, it is a little stretched.
However, these are merely minor quibbles, and the fact they arise at all is testimony to the play’s thought-provoking nature. There is an intelligence, humour and inventiveness here that make this an impressive piece of theatre, recommended both to those who lived through the period and those who did not.
Running time 2 hours 5 mins including 1 interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Monday 2 – Saturday 7 November 2015
Evenings 7:30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 2:30pm
Details and tickets from http://www.edtheatres.com/handbagged
Tour details: http://www.handbaggedtheplay.com/
Handbagged on tour 2015:
0131 529 6000
01603 63 00 00
0844 871 7651
30 Nov-5 Dec