Proving that theatre is sometimes subject to the same law as buses – two come along at once, etc – last year saw two new productions take imaginative liberties with the regular private meetings shared by the prime minister and the Queen.
In Peter Morgan’s ‘The Audience’, Helen Mirren – now so firmly set in the national consciousness as our monarch that Her Maj herself is starting to look like an imposter – reprised her regal role before a procession of ministers. Meanwhile, over at the Tricycle, Moira Buffini’s ‘Handbagged’ focused on the relationship between two key women: Mrs Windsor, of course, and the late Margaret Thatcher.
Tricycle artistic director Indhu Rubasingham commissioned ‘Handbagged’ from an earlier, shorter script; she was, apparently, almost deterred by possible similarities with ‘The Audience’. Thank goodness she held firm. This is a hilarious, intelligent treat – a hit at the Tricycle, and well deserving this West End transfer.
The play’s success depends in large part on the performances of its four actresses, who play older and younger versions of the two leaders. Stepping out from the firm public versions of each woman’s personality – as solidly lacquered as their eerily similar hairdos and black handbags – is an enormous acting challenge. All four rise to it brilliantly – especially Fenella Woolgar as the young Mags, caught between obsequiousness and her iron will; and Marion Bailey as the older Queen, who comes across as a rather fun-loving, gossipy old lady.
It is odd to see our monarch defending socialism, and reminding the intransigent Thatcher of the plight of the poor. But Buffini is very aware of this irony– in one of the play’s several neat meta-theatrical moments, one of her characters voices it on stage. And the little evidence we do have about the real relationship between the two women does point towards the Queen’s standing a little to the left of Thatcher – which, to be fair, it didn’t take much to achieve.
Designer Richard Kent’s set – a large white frame, reminiscent of palace railings, in the shape of the Union Jack – gets the atmosphere just right, and the play zips along under Rubasingham’s direction. Book your ticket today.