It is thought that, during her eleven years of service as the UK's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher never had a cheerful relationship with the Queen. This is also confirmed by biographer John Campbell, who described their relations as 'punctiliously correct' but with 'little love lost on either side'. No official statement was ever made in those regards, but a serious constitutional crisis was feared in 1986, when Her Majesty's press secretary leaked anonymous rumours of a rift between the two women, which were promptly denied by the Palace.
For eleven years, Thatcher and Elizabeth II met every week – as per protocol – to discuss government business. What was said during those meetings is absolutely confidential and no written record was ever kept of it. With this in mind, playwright Moira Buffini imagined the two women's possible conversations during some of the most crucial circumstances of the Prime Minister's mandate. The outcome is a brilliant – and fairly enlightening – fictional account of those private encounters, which are set in a drawing room at Buckingham Palace.
Devised as a metaplay where addressing the audience directly is part of the fun, Handbagged is a visionary but poignantly actual comedy that, despite the large amount of information conveyed, is never tedious nor hard to follow. With well-researched characters and a light-hearted narrative style, Buffini rattles off the most painful instances occurred during the Thatcher's era, like the blind eye turned on the Apartheid in South Africa, the Falklands War in 1982, her attempted assassination by the IRA and the struggles with the Conservative party that led to her final resignation in 1990.
The striking resemblance between the leads and their characters supports an exceptional performance. Pauline Armour is terribly cute as the elderly Queen and Fiona McGahren provides a solid delivery of her younger counterpart. The script doesn't give much space to the elderly Prime Minister, played by Sue Higginson. Real star of the evening is Sarah Tortell with her depiction of the young Thatcher, where the voice, gestures and even the eye movement are
impressively realistic. Howie Ripley and Mark Steere carry out – sometimes with an open agreement between them – the numerous secondary roles, with an admirable array of characters and features (including some memorable costume changes).
Director Dan Armour adds the final touch to the already highly entertaining performance by devising even more interaction with the audience and some meaningful stops and stares of the actors. Overall, Handbagged is a clever and subtly polemic comic piece, which is also worth watching for its interesting references to Britain's recent history, offered with an imaginative but credible twist on reality.
Review by Marianna Meloni