New Vic theatre until Saturday 28 September 2019
The time and place couldn’t be better for this excellent revival of Moira Buffini’s hit comedy Handbagged, from 2013. Director Fiona Buffini, the author’s sister and sometime collaborator, takes full advantage of both.
She gives us an evening of witty entertainment which is playfully inventive in its account of the divisive politics of the 1980’s while stimulating frequent and hard-to-miss comparisons with the divisive politics of today.
Handbagged imagines what might have been said when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met the Queen, from her first audience — with grotesquely over-the-top curtsy — to her last. The younger Queen (Melissa Collier) is open to developing a real relationship with her new prime minister, but she is shadowed by an older self (rendered with admirable accuracy by Louise Bangay) who comments and corrects from a more cynical if imperious perspective.
Similarly, there are two prime ministers on stage together. Zoë Aldrich captures the ingratiating manner and oddly naïve arrogance of the younger Mrs T to a T, while her older self (Jan Goodman) reinforces her unbending convictions with ever more acerbic interjections. “I welcome strife in the cause of making Britain great again,” she says. But as she follows her determined course over the map of the United Kingdom beneath their feet you feel it could easily shatter.
So there are four handbags (with matching shoes) on stage almost all the time, with Paul Mundell and Ashley Gerlach deftly weaving their way around them and through the decade, playing husband Dennis, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Michael Heseltine, Arthur Scargill, Rupert Murdoch, and many others. The two men give a suggestion of The Reduced Shakespeare Company at work in the speed and confidence with which they zap through the more-or-less familiar while harvesting fresh laughs.
Margaret Thatcher was Queen Elizabeth’s longest-serving prime minister; Boris Johnson may prove her shortest. Thatcher was driven by deep convictions while Johnson doesn’t appear to have any at all. And yet her famous quotation from St. Francis, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony,” chimes with Johnson’s insistence that he is a one-nation Tory. And it is a sense of discord that underlies the whole evening.
Performing in the round encourages a sense that we in the audience are eavesdropping on private conversations between the four handbags – and gives HM numerous opportunities to offer limp handshakes to punters in the front row.
But the shape of the theatre also encourages the sense of events coming round again to haunt us: Prince Andrew (“My favourite son”) heroically sailing for the Falkland’s and sailing again today into heavy waters; Mrs T describing how she tried to stop HM attending the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in Lusaka, fearing it would give succour to Robert Mugabe, in the same week that the despot finally died; and Neil Kinnock’s “I warn you” speech literally echoing round the theatre, with chilling effect.
Many of the conversations in Handbagged take place across the Buckingham Palace tea table, beneath an enormous suspended gilded crown. It’s a testament to the play’s good-natured humour, and this production’s sensitivity, that when the Queen says “One cherishes one’s service” one can both respect her and her service while entertaining a nagging feeling that part of her is giving a nod to her crockery.