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HANDBAGGED – Vaudeville, WC2

She’s back, the Iron Lady, with a war-cry of “No!” and a warmly patronizing memory of “The men!…I can pin them wrigging with my gaze and release them with a smile”. Baffled but courteous, the Queen creeps up behind her to offer a chair for their weekly meeting. And we’re off: piquantly, the most insightful political comedy to hit the West End for years is not born of the Westminster village or the boys-club standup nexus. It’s written by Moira Buffini, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and played by women outnumbering men two-to-one.


Not that it’s a feminist plea – its twin heroines would never stand for that. Rather – drawing on speeches, memoirs, news reports, Christmas broadcasts and (not least) Buffini’s mischievous imagination – it is a playful and unexpectedly humane treatment of eleven years which Prime Minister Thatcher shared with H.M. the Queen.
Playful because there are two of each: one younger, 1980s version, another as they are or would be today. They argue with one another and with their other selves, as in a four-way melée of differing perceptions as they recall like Zimbabwe, the Falklands, bombings, riots, and the Special Relationship. Joining them, henpecked, are jobbing actors hired to conjure up the other characters from Denis and Philip to Kaunda, Enoch,Kinnock, Reagan, HoweHeseltine. The playfulness lies in the idea that they have met in a theatre (to the Queen’s faint chagrin, though “one saw War Horse”) and that the footmen-actors – Jeff Rawle as the older, Neet Mohan as the younger – occasionally jib at parts they are given or break out with their own opinions. So two generations can identify, and the odd in-joke flourish (“What was a Closed Shop?” asks the youth, and Rawle snarls “The reason actors used to earn proper money!”. Naturally, any male rebellion is futile against the basilisk stare of Thatcher and the amused authority of the monarch. The Queen, by the way, insists on an interval despite the PM’s protest “there’s work to do!”.


Likenesses go far beyond wigs and suits: Fenella Woolgar in particular has caught a particular eyebrow-move which took me right back to 1980 with a shiver, and Marion Bailey as the older Queen goes beyond caricature into a degree of identity previously only caught by Helen Mirren. In which context it is worth mentioning The Audience because its weakest scene was the Thatcher one. This more than makes up the deficit.
In my last doomed week as Times Chief Theatre critic this show proved great solace at the Tricycle. My review (£ http://tinyurl.com/nb9el4g) concluded “Pure theatre, doing something only theatre can.”. Glad to return the favour: six months on, the well-deserved transfer has that very quote outside.


One of the pleasures of seeing it again is noticing how subtly it accepts the two women not as Spitting Image caricatures but as living, struggling humans. “Journalists and policemen are always so BIG” muses the Queen “One finds them enormous”. And I had forgotten the moment when the Chequers Christmas gathering (with Murdochs and Archers) watches the defiant 1981 Christmas message with horror as HM recklessly uses the word “comradeship”…


It’s political, and historical, yet universal in its vision of two people finding one another baffling but occasionally sharing empathy (as when they reflect on the risk of assassination). Lightly, truthfully, it shows how a great public role can only partly define you; how the years go by, and within each of us is a scornful younger self and a thoughtful future one. Don’t miss it. It’s a treat.
box office 0845 505 8500 to 28 June

rating:   even better, so 5  5 Meece Rating



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