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Review: Handbagged @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. Two iconic figures of the 20th Century, born just a few months apart, and responsible for some of the most significant changes in British history. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could know what they thought of each other? In Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s mildly enjoyable comedy that premiered at the Tricycle Theatre last year, and is currently on tour, the audience can do exactly that.

Staged on a clean, white stage backed by a stylised Union Jack and metatheatrical from the off, Handbagged is essentially a two-hour conversation between four characters, but only two women. Emma Handy and Sanchia McCormack, billed as ‘Liz’ and ‘Mags’ respectively, play the UK’s longest-serving monarch and the UK’s only female Prime Minister in their polished 80s prime. Susie Blake and Kate Fahy, ‘Q’ and ‘T’, play them as older, softened, almost-friends, looking thoughtfully back on a turbulent decade on which the dust has settled.

This eclectic conversation is loosely based on the imagined weekly meetings at Buckingham between Queen and PM during the latter’s eleven years in Number 10, with topics of discussion ranging from the weighty (the Falklands War, Apartheid, the Miner’s Strike) to the not so (Jam, Corgies, and the like). Asif Khan and Richard Teverson, as ‘Actor 1’ and ‘Actor 2’, play a host of different characters between them, from a drawling Ronald Reagan, to an indignant Neil Kinnock, to a chortling Dennis Thatcher.

Buffini’s writing is to be admired. She has skilfully assembled a fluid script of imagined arguments, verbatim speeches, running jokes and amusing asides, one which is brought to life by an undeniably proficient cast. Blake and Handy both find something of Elizabeth II’s prim warmth, as do Fahy and McCormack of Thatcher’s haughty defiance. Refreshingly, although much of the humour of the piece rests on its satirical potential, none of the four ever stray too far into caricature to achieve laughs.

It’s not difficult to see why Handbagged might work; it’s a multi-faceted play. There is the novelty of being allowed a voyeuristic glimpse into the inner dynamics of an otherwise unseen relationship. There is the engaging political undercurrent, which rears its head in the second half when disagreements begin to crop up. And, for older audience members, there are the eternally satisfying reminders of times past.

Yet this is not purely a political satire, nor is it a comedy of stereotypes. Above all else, it is a compelling character study of two of the 20th Century’s most influential women. Buffini’s careful polarisation of the two figures’ viewpoints on certain matters – although it feels a little forced at times – is nonetheless effective in pinning down the differences between them. Thatcher is presented as the force of nature she was, all arrogance and declamation, whereas the Queen, somewhat paradoxically, is presented as something of a champion of democratic socialism – although one is never truly sure whether she is simply playing devil’s advocate.

But for all this, Handbagged never really captivates. It is far from side-splittingly hilarious, provoking more wry chuckles than belly laughs, and it is not exactly biting political comment or emotional torment either. Its originality is its key asset, and although this is plenty to create an enjoyable production, it is not enough to create a truly memorable one.

3/5

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