"Compassionate Queen outflanks Milk Snatcher"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 15/05/19

‘Handbagged’ imagines what may have happened at the weekly meetings between the Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, between 1979 and 1990. This is a lot of ground to cover, and to imagine, given that no notes were made by either party (although certain things just happened to ‘slip out’). There is also a lot of information to impart, from an era 30-40 years ago. So how is this achieved, in a way which is meaningful to those born subsequently?

Firstly, the writer Moira Buffini, takes the bold step of ‘double casting’ the two leading parts. The cast of six features Susan Penhaligon as Q (the older Queen) and Caroline Harker as Liz (the younger Queen); with Sarah Crowden as T (the older Mrs. Thatcher) and Alice Selwyn as Mags (the younger Mrs. Thatch): all four superbly characterised, yet in different ways. The actors are thus able to add commentary and context to their exchanges in a way that makes the conjecture never less than credible, always amusing, and often hilarious.

Secondly, the play breaks with several theatrical conventions, in directly addressing the audience to explain what is happening, in way which proved to be extremely pithy.

Thirdly, the cast is completed by actors 1 & 2 (Jahvel Hall and Andy Secombe) in a wide variety of thumbnail sketches from the supporting characters of the era, as events - Rhodesia, the Brighton bomb, the Miner’s Strike, to mention but three – unfolded (there are also passing references to events omitted). These characters included Denis Thatcher (obviously), Kenneth Kaunda, Gerry Adams, Geoffrey Howe, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Heseltine, Ronald (and Nancy!) Reagan, and Arthur Scargill. Of the many high points, one of the best is where both actors are convinced they have been contracted to play the part of Neil Kinnock, and engage in a Kinnock-off!

Perhaps it is only wishful thinking on Buffini’s part, but there are many occasions where the Queen is cast as the better informed of the two characters. Specifically, there are several highly satisfactory instances where the supposedly more educated Mrs. Thatcher*, is outflanked by the more compassionate Queen, who brings her long experience of meetings with numerous previous prime ministers, and her profound knowledge of the Commonwealth to bear on their conversations. In fact, as is frequently all too apparent, there is no dialogue in the sense of holding a discussion to resolve issues: Thatcher fawns, but doesn’t listen. It is also worth noting that the Queen has all the best put-downs, wryly commenting on Mrs. T’s “ludicrous slogans”. And lest anyone doubt that Margaret Thatcher is still a divisive figure, she is roundly booed at the start of the play.

* Aside: as the play reminds us the Iron Lady was a research chemist, but her research was on ‘soft’ ice cream. Somewhat ironic for someone later dubbed Milk Snatcher?

All in all, ‘Handbagged’ is a remarkable achievement. It chronicles a significant part of recent British political history, the ramifications of which are still felt today. It does so by putting the events in context and telling them with humour, rather than with a long face. And whilst Thatcher might have been ‘stood down’ in 1990, spare a thought for the Queen. Since then she has had something like a thousand more of these weekly meetings with her subsequent Prime Ministers.

The creative team is completed by direction from Jo Newman, design by Dawn Allsopp, with lighting and sound design from James Mackenzie and Adrienne Quartly respectively. This joint production with Wiltshire Creative and York Theatre Royal, continues at Oldham Coliseum until 1st June.

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