The events depicted in Handbagged took place 30 to 40 years ago, but it’s hardly surprising that Moira Buffini’s play has been revived in the current political climate.
Co-produced by Oldham Coliseum, Wiltshire Creative and York Theatre Royal, Handbagged presents the imagined conversations between the Queen and “that bloody woman” Margaret Thatcher. It is evident that the two have lots in common: they are a similar age, wear structured, brightly-coloured dresses and both sport handbags in the crook of their elbow. But similarity does not always lead to harmony, as the awkward exchanges between the women make all too evident.
Under Jo Newman’s direction, Thatcher is presented as earnest and humourless, particularly in her younger guise, Mags (played by Alice Selwyn). In contrast, young Liz (Caroline Harker) appears to be a more relaxed and capable stateswoman, continually aware of her position but not to the detriment of her personal integrity.
Their conversations are watched over by older versions of themselves; Susan Penhaglion’s Queen is perfectly pitched in tone and Sarah Crowden captures Thatcher’s manner and expressions adeptly. The characters’ commentary on events allows the inconsistencies in historical record to be exploited by presenting alternative interpretations of Thatcher’s meetings with the Queen.
Amidst an atmosphere of simmering dismay, Jahvel Hall and Andy Secombe play two actors switching between a range of supporting parts – from Ronald and Nancy Reagan to Neil Kinnock. The ostentatious assumption of roles is a continual reminder of how central image projection is to those in power.
What the production lacks in narrative structure and elegance, it makes up for in charm and self-reflexivity. The continual breaking of the fourth wall forces the audience to reflect on its own views and opinions as well as highlighting the theatricality of politics; the production brings the current situation with Brexit into sharp focus.
And so, we are left to reflect on the potential conversations between the Queen and the country’s second female Prime Minister. Perhaps Theresa May will ultimately take heed of the wisdom imparted by Liz: “Sometimes the harder one holds on, the more things fall apart.”
Handbagged is playing at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 1 June 2019. Tickets are available HERE
Photo credit: Helen Murray