With the Queen’s coffin lying in state at the same time as we are actually watching Moira Buffini’s Hangbagged, there is a slightly surreal element to this playful production.
Handbagged originated in 2010 as a one act play, as part of the Tricycle Theatre’s (now called The Kiln), Women, Power and Politics festival.
This was followed by a sold-out 2013 season at the Tricycle, and subsequent West End and New York runs. Originally planned as part of the Queen’s 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Hangbagged makes a timely return to The Kiln.
The play is based on the imagined1979-1990 conversations of two of world’s most powerful women, the then serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Queen Elizabeth II.
The title of the play comes from a term that featured in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the verb “to handbag.” Meaning (a woman politician),who verbally and psychologically beats the arguments and ideologies of her colleagues or opponents. Indeed for Thatcher her handbag became an iconic political prop and visible symbol of her power.
Born six months apart with gender, success, and renown in common, the Queen and Maggie seemed to have the perfect recipe for a meaningful relationship. However, in reality there was little meeting of hearts and minds between the two peers. Indeed the relationship between the Monarch and the ‘Iron Lady’ was reportedly more a battle of wills than a friendship.
As Mags in Handbagged says: “I had to work so hard for my achievements, Her Majesty’s were birthrights.” Whereas behind closed palace doors the Queen allegedly referred to Thatcher as “that bloody woman.”
Handbagged’s central comic irony is that it relies on the premise that Margaret Thatcher is portrayed to be more highbrow, humourless, rigid and regally affected than her majesty. Along with the obvious comic caricatures, the play also balances moments of pathos, particularly in reaction to the murder of Louis Mountbatten and the Brighton Grand hotel bombing.
In Handbagged there are two Queens and two Mrs Thatchers – as younger and older versions of themselves. The quartet comment throughout the evening onthe many controversies over the years, including the loss of the Empire, the meaning of society, the miners strike, the Falkland war and apartheid.
Often the older and younger versions of themselves contradict each other, and there is a mischievous and unapologetic toying with metatheatricality, as the actors talk directly to the audience about their roles.
The cast of Handbagged is faultless, and they work together brilliantly as an ensemble. Marion Bailey is a dignified but homely sage as older Queen Elizabeth, while Abigail Cruttenden plays an ardent incarnation of the younger Liz. Kate Fahy delivers a sanctimonious, stony hearted older Thatcher, and her equally unbending younger self is ably played by Naoimi Frederick. Roymayne Andrews and Richard Cant play 27 other characters including Denis Thatcher, the Reagans, Rupert Murdoch and the Queen’s footmen.
All the elements of Handbagged are expertly bound together by Indhu Rubasingham’s accomplished direction.