A play consisting of two Margaret Thatchers and two Queens and precious little else, well that’ll never work I thought when I first heard about HANDBAGGED. How wrong could I have been!
I am not sure if HANDBAGGED is meant to be a relatively serious commentary on the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, or a comedy. In truth it is both, and bizarrely it works. It could have gone so very wrong, but I doubt whether a single person walks out of the theatre thinking they had been cheated. It holds your attention right through and is the sort of play you probably need to see two or three times to really appreciate its many nuances.
It is based around four main characters – a young Margaret Thatcher (of 1979 vintage), a young Queen, an older Margaret Thatcher (1990 vintage) and an older Queen. There is also a kind of narrator, who also performs various characters and Denis, who at times transforms into Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock.
At times the play is moving, at other times it descends into slapstick, but somehow it works. Just don’t ask me how. Thatcher fans and Thatcher haters alike will love it. I was sitting behind Mary Beard on the opening night and she could hardly believe what she was seeing. Yes, it has a slight leftish bias, but not enough to put an ardent Thatcherite like me off finding it simply beguiling.
Close your eyes and you could really imagine the younger Margaret Thatcher really was Margaret Thatcher. Not only did Fenella Woolgar have the voice down to a tee, she also had all the mannerisms exactly right. The same with the older Queen, played by Marion Bailey. Together they stole the show. That’s not to criticise Stella Gonet who played the older Margaret Thatcher. She was quite brilliant too, but in a very different way. She too got the voice right, but perhaps she became a little too ‘Spitting Image’ and overplayed the slightly ‘mad’ element to her performance. The weakest performance of the whole cast, I felt, was played by Lucy Robinson, who played the younger Queen. It wasn’t that she was particularly bad, she wasn’t. But she looked nothing like the younger Queen and her voice wasn’t quite right. I gather she replaced the original young Queen at quite a late stage. But that is to carp. She just wasn’t quite as accurate as the other three.
The other star of the show was played by Neet Mohan who appeared on stage as the Queen’s butler, but went on to provide many of the evening’s comedic moments as he switched from one character to another, perhaps most memorably Nancy Reagan. It was he who also provided most of the left-wingery on stage as he questioned why there was no mention of the miners strike and such like. But he did it in a way which didn’t have the right wingers in the audience shifting uneasily in their seats.
Jeff Rawle, who played the hapless newsroom editor in Drop the Dead Donkey, was superb as Denis Thatcher, although I never did work out why he played him with a slight Brummie accent. He also played various other characters to varying degrees of accuracy. In a way it didn’t matter if he didn’t get the voices quite right. He had clearly studied their mannerisms so it was always clear who he was portraying, not least because he usually told us!
You don’t have to be a Thatcher fan or Thatcher hater to enjoy this fast moving, pacy production. You don’t have to be a royalist or a republican. All you need to do is go into the theatre determined to enjoy yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed. At all.
Because of my working hours I don’t get to go to the theatre much nowadays, but I can honestly say this is the most I have enjoyed myself in a theatre since I saw Frankie Howerd back in the early 1990s. I enjoyed it so much I will go and see it again. It’s five stars from me.
Stars: * * * * *
HANDBAGGED is on at the Vaudeville theatre in The Strand.