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.


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Review: Bront√ę at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Start a conversation about English literature with just about anyone, and it probably won’t be too long before you arrive at the Bront√ę sisters. Best known as the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte, Emily and Anne are part of our national heritage, and yet most of us know far more about the lives of their characters than we do about the authors themselves. Polly Teale’s 2005 play Bront√ę aims to correct the balance, allowing us¬†a glimpse¬†into the remote rural life of the three sisters, and the complex family relationships that inspired the classic creations we know so well.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

And it turns out there’s more than enough material here for a story all of its own. The personal and professional rivalry between Charlotte and Emily (in keeping with history, poor Anne doesn’t really get much of a look-in, and is relegated to the role of peacekeeper); the declining fortunes and eventual disgrace of their brother Branwell; the struggle to succeed as writers in a man’s world, and the sisters’ very different motivations for writing in the first place… There’s a lot to cover, and the play does so in a series of short scenes, jumping backwards and forwards in time from childhood to adulthood, and returning¬†to somewhere in between. Each of these scenes¬†is introduced by a change of lighting (effectively managed by Adam Taylor) and a burst of recorded string music, wherein¬†lies my only real complaint about Tower Theatre’s¬†production – after countless scene changes, the music does start to grate just a little bit.

That small gripe aside, the production, directed by Simona Hughes, is of the highest quality. The cast give compelling performances, in particular Joanna Nevin as the sensitive, publicity-shy¬†Emily, and Tania Haq, who becomes more and more¬†dishevelled as she brings to life¬†two iconic characters – Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Bertha from Jane Eyre. The two male members of the cast also take on multiple roles with skill, and it’s here¬†we begin to see the parallels between fiction and reality woven into Teale’s script, as¬†the girls’¬†father (Martin South), whose love and approval Charlotte¬†craves, morphs into Mr Rochester and her adored¬†tutor Constantin¬†H√©ger, while¬†the increasingly abusive¬†Branwell (Paul Willcocks) turns before our eyes into¬†Heathcliff and the drunkard Arthur Huntingdon.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

What’s most impressive about the production, though, is the way it recreates¬†the isolation of the Bront√ęs’ home on the moors. With the exception of the local curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, we never see anyone from outside the family enter the house… and nor do we leave it until very late in the play (and then only briefly). Colin Guthrie’s sound design brings the countryside to life around us, as rain pours, birds cry and wind blows. And as the sisters¬†repeat the same tasks, day in day out – folding laundry, baking bread and caring for their elderly father, all whilst knowing that the world expects nothing more of them because they’re only¬†women – we get a sense of the stifling atmosphere that led them to find their¬†escape through writing.

Bront√ę is a fascinating true life story that puts a human face on three literary legends, and makes you want to go back and read all the novels again to look for clues you might have missed the first time. Part documentary, part drama, it touches on gender issues, family relationships and the human need to be known and admired, to leave our mark on the world even long after we’re gone.

Much like the Bront√ę sisters’ famous novels, it’s not a particularly cheerful tale – but then as we all know, that¬†doesn’t necessarily prevent¬†a story from becoming a classic.


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Review: The Return of the Marionettes at Bridewell Theatre

Welcome to the 1960s, where girl group The Marionettes are taking to the stage at the height of their fame. But as they come to the end of their final number, one of the girls runs from the stage in tears. And that, we learn from their manager George Ellis, is the end of the Marionettes.

Until now (well Р1984, anyway): 20 years later, the girls are back together for a one-off reunion show that could see their career picking up where they left off. But with so much history to work through Рpersonal and professional Рcan they put the past behind them and deliver the show their adoring fans have been waiting for?

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Writers Peter and Phillip Ley of Tower Theatre Company take us back to the start of the story, introducing us to four giggling schoolgirls who call themselves the Moonbeams, and charting their progress to the top. Along the way, we’re treated to 18 original songs that capture the spirit of the 60s and – like all the best songs from that period – are easy to pick up and totally infectious. (Two days later, I’m still singing the Marionettes’ first big hit, Dynamite.) Polished¬†performances from the cast, along with¬†Ruth Sullivan’s choreography and costumes from Lynda Twidale, mean the musical numbers do a great job of transporting¬†us back in time.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

A dual cast of actresses play the Marionettes then and now, which enables the two groups to share the stage, with the older women often observing their younger selves and providing commentary on events as they unfold. Angharad Ormond and Stella Henney earn their place as lead vocalist Cathy with some impressive performances, but both also reveal a touching vulnerability hidden beneath a veneer of false confidence. Meanwhile Fiorella Osborne and Annette Ross show the fiery passion and determination that have always made Mary the true leader of the Marionettes.

What works really well is the way the dynamic of the group picks up where it left off 20 years ago – the professional tension between Mary and Cathy continues, there’s tension of a whole other kind between Mary and George, and the Meltzer sisters (Olivia Barton-Fisher and Jessica O’Toole as the younger, Deborah Ley and Annemarie Fearnley as the older) are enjoying the moment and providing¬†light relief with their banter. The transition is aided by the constant, reassuring presence of Brad Johnson as both the older and younger George, along with Julian Farrance as heartless record boss Allan Tyrell.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Despite¬†a few small stumbles in the spoken scenes, and some sound issues – the live band, led by musical director Colin Guthrie, are fabulous but occasionally drown out the actors – there are a lot of great things¬†about¬†this show, and opening with the break-up of the band creates an enjoyable suspense as we wait to see not only what eventually proved to be the last straw, but whether the women¬†can now overcome their differences.¬†It would have been nice¬†to see more of the simmering romance between Mary and George; considering their feelings for each other are still present and obvious to everyone 20 years later,¬†there are very few¬†references to it in the flashbacks. And while it’s a challenge to recreate the sensation of a huge sell-out gig in an intimate fringe setting, there’s¬†a lovely moment with some crazy¬†fans, which helps demonstrate just how big the group were at the height of their fame.

The Return of the Marionettes is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the familiar ‘rags to riches to ruin to redemption’ story we’ve come to know and love from shows like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls. With a soundtrack of¬†irresistible songs, some strong¬†vocal performances and a rousing finale, this is a show with great potential, which is pretty much guaranteed to send audiences out with a smile on their face and a skip in their step.


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