Play number 2 of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre
Written by Moira Buffini, soon to become the second living female playwright to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre (although by saying that am I undermining what this season is trying to achieve? I know it shouldn’t matter but surely it is significant enough to mention?), Handbagged is an extremely witty look at what the relationship between the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher might have been like. Thatcher had a weekly audience with Elizabeth II during her Prime Ministership and this could be seen as the most constant professional relationship she had with another woman during that time, but it was not the easiest of times between the two as we see here.
They were tested by a range of major challenges. Like Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, supported by Thatcher but as a Commonwealth country the Queen had an interest as the Head of State there, and the Queen took great exception to not being fully included in the consultations around it. Like Thatcher’s rejection of sanctions against South Africa in order to try and weaken apartheid, something supported by the Queen as she felt it was threatening the stability of the Commonwealth. Like the Sunday Times’ alleged exposé of the rift between the women, leaked (or was it?) by the Queen’s Press Secretary Michael Shea, a waggish Simon Chandler in an excellent cameo here.
The play makes a virtue of the fact that we know nothing of what their conversations were like by having an older version of the pair reminiscing about events which was played out by younger versions. Thus the scene is set for a little historical revisionism on the part of both ladies, and often challenged by the other, especially when their actions do not paint them in the best light. This is a rather clunky explanation and does no justice to the deftness of touch with which this has been written and how brilliantly it is acted on the stage.
Stella Gonet as Mrs T and Kika Markham as the Queen initially face off as the women (‘Why don’t you sit down?), born just five months apart in 1925 and then Heather Craney and Claire Cox emerge as the younger versions to take us through the 11 years. Along with the difficulties, Buffini also draws lines where she thinks they might have had real connections, amusingly so in their girlish appreciation for Ronald Reagan (Tom Mannion here) and touchingly so in their deep, unwavering love and admiration for their fathers, clearly a defining characteristic for both ladies. And it is full of beautifully judged moments, even during the short running time: the look of triumph on Gonet’s face in being able to wrap Reagan around her little finger and the look of horror as the Queen talks about how she liked Ted Heath, Markham’s pride in having gone to the theatre recently (War Horse!) and the combined withering stare of Gonet and Craney is terrifyingly amazing. All four women are just brilliant though and I think I liked this play the most out of the entire two days.
Each pairing sparks off each other beautifully and there’s also good connection between older and younger as there is much overlapping dialogue, quick denials (‘I never said that’ is repeated a lot!) and hurried remembrances which make Handbagged an absolute treasure to watch and extremely funny. It really does feel like a realistic depiction of what this relationship might have been like, forever in flux but deeply meaningful to each woman.