Moira Buffini’s inspired, inventive play about Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — two women born six months apart and forced to deal with one another for the 11 years of Thatcher’s tenure — is as cheeky a comedy as its title suggests. It is also as informative a history play as the one it calls to mind. In “The Audience,” which ran on Broadway in 2015, we witnessed Helen Mirren as the Queen holding her required weekly audience with each of a dozen Prime Ministers during the six decades of her reign, including Thatcher (who was portrayed by Judith Ivey.)
Indeed, Buffini’s play begins with the first such formal weekly audience between the two women, one sovereign, the other head of government
“She’s ever so small,” observes the prime minister about the queen.
“She colors her hair,” observes the queen about the prime minister.
But “Handbagged” is more than just a comedy and history. Boosted by a well-directed production with spot-on performances, it is a sly, skilled takedown of Thatcher, achieved through an entertaining meta-theatrical exercise.
Both the queen and the prime minister are each portrayed by two characters — Anita Carey is the older Queen Elizabeth while Kate Fahy Is the older Margaret Thatcher. Beth Hylton and Susan Lynskey portray their younger selves, Liz and Mags, during the Thatcher years, 1979-1990. The quartet quarrel not only over individual controversies as the years unfold, but over what actually happened, and who said what, and whether their memory has held up – and whether the play has any of it right at all. (“This is all crass surmise.”) They debate loss of Empire (the Queen is happy to be left with the Commonwealth), and the apartheid regime in South Africa (the prime minister opposes sanctions), the Falkland War, the coal miner’s strike, socialism, financial regulation, and over whether “Handbagged” should have an intermission (which they call an interval.) “I’d like to go right through,” Margaret Thatcher says.
“But I enjoy the interval,” says Queen Elizabeth. “Sometimes it’s the best part of the play.”
The meta-theatrical bits are the funniest parts of this play. But they are also the most pointed. Two male actors portray more than a half a dozen characters a piece, including Thatcher’s husband Denis, the Queen’s footman, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. But they also portray actors arguing over who should play what, and what should be included. And they are the ones who push the unpleasant aspects of the Thatcher years to the fore. When one of them talks about the devastating effects of Thatcher’s triumph over the coal miners, both Thatchers gang up on him. “Would you tell me whose opinion these people have paid good money to hear?….What does your opinion count for here?”
One gets the unmistakable impression that, in this production, his opinion is the only one that counts.
By Moira Buffini
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Scenic and costume design Richard Kent, lighting design by Jesse Belsky, sound design by Carolyn Downing
Cast: Anita Carey, Kate Fahy, Beth Hylton, John Lescault, Susan Lynskey, and Cody LeRoy Wilson
Running time: 2 hours including an intermission
Handbagged is on stage through June 30, 2019