Arts, OldVenue

Review – Handbagged at Norwich Theatre Royal

A minimalist set-up, two chairs, a tea-trolley and a grid-like structure that forms the union flag. We are surrounded by people ‘of-a-certain-age’ and I must admit I am dubious as to how this is all going to pan out. From the programme, ‘Handbagged’, by Moira Buffini, seems to be an exploration of women in positions of political power, from Hatshepsut in Ancient Egypt to Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel today. The programme acknowledges that these figures were equally loved and loathed and this worries me, is this going to be a play justifying the actions of a woman who was responsible for widening the gap between the rich and poor in Britain irreparably?

The lights go down and an older Mrs Thatcher or ‘T’, played by Kate Fahy, enters to the national anthem and the union flag grid lit up behind her. She begins with a speech. The play is heavily built around speeches and rhetoric so how better to start than with speeches from T and the Queen, ‘Q’, played by Susie Blake. Still, I am unsure as to how this is going to go. Is this going to be a reverential performance honouring Thatcher and the Queen? As a student, a Londoner and a staunch left-winger, the thought makes me deeply uncomfortable. Fortunately, within the first ten minutes I am proven wrong. A central element of the play is the use of retrospect to cut through the muddying and fiddly world of social etiquette and political rhetoric. Older Q comments on what she ‘really’ thought of younger Maggie (Sanchia McCormack), whilst older T points out the flaws in younger Liz’s (Emma Handy) sentiments. The two appear equally matched, and the biting rapport between Q and T superbly demonstrates this, an argument over whether or not to have an interval is a great example.

It is made clear early on that no one is entirely sure about what was said between Thatcher and the Queen during their private, weekly meetings and play is imaginatively fills in the blanks. From the outset, the tone is gentle enough to appeal to Q and T supporters and satirical enough to give the rest of us a giggle. The conversations between Q, T (older), Liz and Maggie (younger) are hell-bent on trying to work out what was said in these meetings, who said what, what everyone was feeling and did they actually mean what they said. Needless to say, a conclusion is never reached and this is probably for the best as doing so would bring the play out of the realms of speculation and into one of factual claims.

So what is the play actually trying to achieve? Between the political myriad of characters and events, in which Rupert Murdoch, Ronald and Nancy Regan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine and many more all appear, it seems to come down to two women and how they endeavoured to get along. The play has self-awareness in bucket-loads which not only provides comedy to what could be a mentally draining evening, but stops the performance from straying into soapbox territory, which also makes for a mentally draining evening.

This is not a play about the state versus the monarchy, or even the Prime Minister versus the Queen, it is about Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Windsor, people, not icons. They are not deified or demonised. There is no political agenda being pushed. They are people, whether you like it or not.


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