Review: Handbagged at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Not having really lived through the Thatcher years, I’ve never been able to fully appreciate why’s there such an intensity of emotion – positive or negative – among the older generation each time her name comes up. In Handbagged, Moira Buffini attempts to shed some light for the “young people”, by pitting The Iron Lady against another iconic British woman – Queen Elizabeth.

Beginning at the newly elected prime minister’s first audience with the Queen in 1979, the play imagines what might have taken place at their weekly meetings over the next eleven years. It’s a political satire, charting key events including the Falklands, the Brighton hotel bombing and the Miners’ Strike, but ultimately focusing on the human relationship between the two women. The Queen’s baffled by Thatcher’s coldness and lack of humour, while the Prime Minister fails to understand her monarch’s love of the outdoors, and fears Her Majesty may secretly be a socialist. The stage is set for an epic clash of personalities, and that’s exactly what we get in the Tower Theatre’s production.

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Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

An easily recognisable older and younger version of each leader – playfully referred to in the programme as Q and T, Liz and Mags respectively – look back on events over tea and cake, bickering about what did and didn’t happen, while two increasingly dissatisfied (and disruptive) actors fill in all the other parts in the story, from Denis Thatcher to Nancy Reagan. Directed by Martin Mulgrew, Helen McCormack and Alison Liney’s Queen is warm and personable, with an occasional mischievous streak, and an urgent desire to be ‘useful’ to her country and people. In contrast, Anne Connell and Julie Arrowsmith both nail Margaret Thatcher’s icy facade, practised speech patterns and frozen facial expression – but not to such an extent that we can fail to see the vulnerability beneath, particularly towards the end of the play.

While the conversations between prime minister and monarch are often loaded with quiet sarcasm, Ian Recordon and Jonathan Wober provide much of the laugh out loud humour as they scramble to fill in all the other roles, adopting an impressive array of costumes and accents along the way and occasionally falling out over who gets the best parts. The fact that they’re hired actors in someone else’s narrative is openly acknowledged from the start, becoming increasingly significant as the play goes on, and they struggle to keep quiet about the conveniently gaping omissions.

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Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

For those of us born in the early 80s or later, Handbagged certainly fills in a few gaps in terms of British history and politics. Yet it never becomes dry or boring, and at times even feels surprisingly current; the description of how divided the country became over Thatcher, for instance, is very reminiscent of present tensions over Brexit. The play also helps explain some of the strong public feeling that still lingers today. The script quotes several of Margaret Thatcher’s most well-known and controversial statements, and even hearing them spoken by an actor, you can’t fail to pick up on the ruthlessness behind them (for good or evil, depending on your politics).

Don’t be fooled by the description of Handbagged as an amateur production – the Tower Theatre Company have done a fantastic job yet again on an enlightening, intelligent and, above all, thoroughly entertaining play.

Handbagged is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 15th October.

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