Two films, The Queen and The Iron Lady, and the hit play The Audience bestowed global superstardom on Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and on Britain’s first-ever female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Both Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep won Oscars for their screen portrayals of these extraordinary women, and Mirren went on to further glory winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Audience, reprising her role as the Queen.
The edgy relationship between Her Royal Highness and Margaret Thatcher – who, between 1979 and 1990, met weekly to discuss matters of state – is the subject, once again, of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, a light-hearted, at times irreverent imagining of what took place during those meetings. For, of course, no records of them exist. No minutes were taken and no secretaries were present.
What is common knowledge, however, is that the two most powerful women in the land rarely saw eye to eye. The queen has gone on record (to the Sunday Times) complaining that the government was “uncaring,” and it is also known that she valued the Commonwealth a great deal more than her didactic PM. Thatcher, for example, disapproved of imposing sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime; the queen was all for it.
In The Audience, playwright John Logan covered similar territory but expanded his parameters by including all the PMs in office since the Queen came to the throne in 1952. Buffini, on the other hand, concentrates only on Thatcher, simultaneously played by Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar as her older and younger self, respectively. The older and younger Queens are portrayed by Marion Bailey and Lucy Robinson. This effective piece of theatrical sleight-of-hand allows the more mature versions of sovereign and PM to talk to their younger selves – conversations that often show them in a contradictory light.
The play is not a two-hander. Other characters appear – from Denis Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington to Rupert Murdoch and Kenneth Kaunda. Also prominently featured (in somewhat caricatural mode) are Ronald and Nancy Reagan. They’re all mischievously played by Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle.
But it’s the two female protagonists who hold centre stage, with Woolgar dominating as the autocratic PM. Her deep, throaty intonations, the confident swagger and that overriding air of superiority as the younger Maggie are spot on. Equally convincing is Gonet’s older incarnation, which has just the right note of desperation that characterised Maggie in her decline.
Bailey as the more mature Elizabeth is, possibly, a tad too jolly and good-humoured for a monarch whose public persona is anything but, though physically she’s the real deal. Holman is less convincing in appearance as the younger queen, yet manages to capture some of Her Majesty’s stony reserve.
What I particularly admire about this potted recap of a fascinating period of our recent history is its sense of fun, the occasional liberties it takes with the audience, and – although the Queen clearly emerges as the heroine of the piece – Buffini resists heaping contempt on Thatcher even though she’s clearly not one of her champions.
The playful tone of a most engaging evening is beautifully captured by Indhu Rubasingham, whose direction is fluent, crisp and to the point.