Review: Handbagged succeeds where The Iron Lady failed

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Geoffrey Smythe reviews Handbagged for PinkNews, a comedy play about Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Queen.

When The Iron Lady was released in 2011 I felt ever so slightly cheated. Of course Meryl Streep’s Hollywood performance of Margaret Thatcher rightly deserved an Oscar, but the film made little attempt to provide an accurate portrayal of Britain’s political history.

With Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s high-class West End comedy play about the relationship between Britain’s two most powerful women, you get the exceptional characterisation but also a far more engaging and rich history lesson.

Handbagged studiously ticks off all of the key Thatcher moments of her 11 years in power in chronological order. Although Section 28 is not included, Thatcher’s derided approach on apartheid in South Africa and her opposition to a unified Germany are depicted, along with the miners’ strike, the Falkland’s War, the Poll Tax riots, and of course her parliamentary downfall.

The play is based on the idea that Thatcher and the Queen are both reminiscing about their relationship from 1979-1990. The dialogue of course is fictional, but the script does attempt to base itself on documented examples of tension, such as when Thatcher took the salute instead of the Queen at the Falkland’s victory parade of 1982.

Having two Queens and two Thatchers on stage at the same time could have been disorientating but Handbagged allows each Queen/Thatcher space to connect with the audience. It also keeps the interaction between the characters pithy and energetic. Fenella Woolgar (younger Thatcher) and Stella Gonet (older Thatcher) give phenomenal performances.

Woolgar captures Thatcher’s lack of irony and hectoring nature, and her strident tendencies. Marion Bailey, as the older Queen, plays the Monarch, dare I say even better than Dame Helen Mirren. Attention to detail is what makes this play so fulfilling. At all times Bailey maintains the Queen’s stooping posture and that grimaced smile.

Satire is used with searing affect throughout. Jeff Rawle, of Drop the Dead Donkey fame, provides the majority of male roles. One minute he’s a sozzled Dennis Thatcher, next a deafening Neil Kinnock, then with a quick change of glasses he’s a swaggering Michael Heseltine, followed by a boorish Rupert Murdoch – all underpinned with regular helpings of Rory Bremner-style social commentary.

Unfortunately Rawle’s performances are just so good that he completely upstages the much younger Neet Mohan, whose drag caricature of a wayward Nancy Reagan is funny for camp appeal, but doesn’t quite match the high standards of everything else.

At its heart the narrative of Handbagged is about the passage of time and how that affects both women on a personal level – this is where Handbagged really does hit the nail on the head. Older Thatcher is shown as entrenched and a shadow of her former self.

In contrast the older Queen is depicted as the Monarch who she is today: cerebral, someone who has literally seen it all and had the opportunity to change with the times.

There are real touching moments in the play, particularly at the end, where Buffini uses poignancy rather comedy for the last line from Thatcher.

Handbagged is on at the Vaudeville Theatre until 2 August.