I wasn’t sure what to expect of Handbagged, the play about Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth, other than it looked to be a two hander (wrong!) and funny. So when I was contacted with a request for blogger feedback from a publicist, I was pretty pleased – things have been a bit grim in Webcowgirl-land the last three weeks and I was in dire need of a good laugh. I mean, I had no idea why the thought of these two women was supposed to be humorous (although “So Maggie Thatcher and Queen Liz walk into a bar” does makes me giggle) or even under what circumstances they would have come into contact (it was based on actual events? – shock!), so there was a leap of faith involved. I’ve done the Life in the UK test but Handbagged assumed a level of knowledge beyond what I, not born English, possessed.
So, factual basis: not only does the PM go to the queen and ask for “permission to form a government” after the election, but apparently the traditionally have some kind of weekly catchup as well. Now, I’d been a tiny bit exposed to this from seeing The Queen, but this is all from the post-Thatcher era and I wasn’t entirely sure how much the interaction of the queen and the PM as depicted in this movie represented reality at all. That said: how much does anything that happens in the palace represent reality? It seems as likely a topic for comedy and satire as any; theatrically, King Charles showed there’s much to be explored in the workings of a monarch in modern times (as opposed to the rather more active workings of historical times).
The play itself is a story told on two sides, that of the queen and of Thatcher; but it’s also told from two points in time, that of the near-present (maybe five years ago), with a gray-haired monarch and “elder statesman” Thatcher, and their “actual” selves at the time of the events. Their older selves correct their younger selves’ mistakes and laugh (or harrumph) at their stupidity – and by “their” I mean of both of their younger selves. I found the imagined evolution of each of their perceptions very interesting – how the queen had grown, perhaps, more disillusioned; and how Thatcher grew, I think, more rigid – and in some ways simply failed to evolve at all, parroting exactly the same things at her height as she does in her retirement.
Fleshing all of this out are two other characters, originally a butler in the palace and Thatcher’s husband (I’d never heard of him before), who wind up playing many varied roles: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, President Kaunda of Zambia, and, well, themselves, as actors with opinions. These two do a lot to fill in the gaps in my historical knowledge of the times – although addressed at the “young folks in the audience who weren’t even alive at this time,” it was helpful to me as a person who, while born, wasn’t really reading international news.
In the end, I feel like I was both educated and entertained, although the whole thing was done with such a light touch that I never felt lectured to. And look: a play in which there are four roles for women in their fifties or older! Really, the only thing I needed to make this night perfect was a cream tea at the interval: it was a very enjoyable night out.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thurday, May 29th, 2014. It continues through August 2nd, 2014. As I researched this, I found more an more that the events that took place outside of “the audience” all really seem to have happened – i.e. per this article – which makes me enjoy the play even more.)