Handbagged – Two Women’s Power Play

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini - Marion Bailey (Q), Stella Gonet (T)

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini – Marion Bailey (Q), Stella Gonet (T)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Earlier this month, I went to see Moira Buffini‘s latest play, Handbagged, at London’s Tricycle Theatre. Building on an idea originally presented in 2010, this new play imagines the inner workings of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, the only female prime minister of the UK. If the premise seems somewhat similar to another play that stepped on the London theatre scene earlier in the year – The Audience – Buffini’s play actually turns out to be very different in both, tone and focus.

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini - Marion Bailey (Q), Clare Holman (Liz)

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini – Marion Bailey (Q), Clare Holman (Liz)

What at first appears to be a play about the allegedly prickly relationship between two very famous and different women, it quickly turns out to be not merely a comedy of manners – and a very funny one at that – but also a reflection on two different sides of a deeply divided society.

Faced with Thatcher’s intransigent ‘no such thing as society’ ideology, the Queen becomes her somewhat improbable counterpoint, worried about the effect of the PM’s policies on the cohesion of society and her duty towards her subjects. The comedic repartee between the characters is in the end a means of presenting and juxtaposing two ways of understanding the world. At times, it feels like a mere pretext for examining the way in which the momentous economic, political and social changes of the 1980s have shaped Britain as we know it today.

Handbagged is a playful comedy that draws you in from the start by acknowledging its fictional nature: as two Elizabeths (Marion Bailey as Q and Clare Holman as Liz) and two Margarets (Fenella Woolgar as Mags and Stella Gonet as T) step in front of the audience, a 1980s version and an older version for each of the two main characters. The play immediately denies any attempts at faithfully recreating reality. As we laugh at the witty, sometimes snarky remarks the four throw at each other, we leave behind any pretence of naturalism and engage instead in a constant game of ‘she said/she didn’t’, when one version of the character says something – usually far too honest and as such politically incorrect – only to be immediately contradicted by her mirror image.

The other characters are played by Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, who alternate between roles and openly discuss with their fellow characters how they are switching from one role to the next. This is a clever way of putting out in the open the fact that, while no records were ever made of the weekly meetings between the Queen and the prime minister, it is not the literal truth that matters, but what we – the audience as much as the theatre-makers – make of their relationship, and its symbolic value in the face of an inevitably changing world.

This open relationship with the audience continues throughout the play: the older Queen is keen to get to the interval and tries to prod her fellow characters to fast-forward through the action while the younger Thatcher repeatedly unmasks other actors impersonating several characters, while Neet Mohan – in between impersonating the queen’s press secretary and Nancy Reagan – stops them both from glossing over the most difficult times: race riots and the miners’ strike above all.

Handbagged is a successful game of tearing apart the walls of make-believe to make us laugh and think – an example of theatre at its best.

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini - Clare Holman (Liz), Stella Gonet (T), Marion Bailey (Q), Fenella Woolgar (Mags)

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini – Clare Holman (Liz), Stella Gonet (T), Marion Bailey (Q), Fenella Woolgar (Mags)

Photography by: Tristram Kenton  |  Website: www.tricycle.co.uk  |  Edited by: Elizabeth Deheza
Emma De Angelis About the author

A historian by training and editor by profession, reviews the glittering lights of the West End, unsuspected ballet classes in shabby Whitechapel and edgy shows in disused railway tunnels. With a PhD from LSE, she lives and breathes the London stage.

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