susie blake

Susie Blake as the older queen with Emma Handy as her younger self and Sanchia McCormack in Tory blue as the older Margaret Thatcher behind.

Handbagged

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

****

MIRANDA Richardson’s delightful question, “Who’s Queen?” from Blackadder danced in my mind throughout this clever play.

The title Handbagged implies a female battle royale and the premise is that our Queen’s relationship with prime minister Margaret Thatcher was not good, a premise explored by writer Moira Buffini who expanded a short piece she wrote for the Tricycle's 2010 project, Women, Power and Politics into a full length play.

The Queen and prime minister met weekly, informally, with no records kept, for 11 years, 1979 – 1990, in the Queen’s drawing room at Buckingham Palace over tea and Victoria sponge. Susie Blake captures brilliantly the older Queen, while on stage simultaneously, and in conversation, Emma Handy plays her younger self.

Kate Fahy plays Margaret Thatcher as a new prime minister in 1979 and Sanchia McCormack is there as her older self while two actors (Richard Teverson and Asif Khan) take on all the (many) supporting roles: two Palace underlings, Denis Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Geoffrey Howe, Peter Carrington, Rupert Murdoch and the Queen’s press secretary Michael O’Shea  - and they are still quibbling about who plays Enoch Powell and Neil Kinnock in an effective, post-modern twist.

These two actors also supply a good dollop of the more controversial history left unexplored by the main characters. Much is made of the fact that the Queen is only allowed to speak her own mind in the Christmas broadcast; she has little opportunity to confront or contest Thatcher’s contentious, conviction politics.

The Queen had plenty of cause to dislike Thatcher. Rupert Murdoch’s The Sunday Times tricked the Queen’s press secretary into telling of friction between the two women; the other, more major incident being when Thatcher took the Forces’ salute instead of the Queen after the Falklands conflict.

The Queen throughout comes across, particularly in Susie Blake’s hands, as definitely the more likeable, the more human, loves cake and gossip. Thatcher comes across as an unyielding conviction politician who decisiveness deserts her in times of crisis and the scene from November 1990 where Denis pleads with her to give it up is chilling.

This play is beautifully written with an innovative staging and, in particular, Susie Blake as the older Queen is a joy to watch; she has the oft-bowed head, her walk, her stance, hands that are never still and brings to life the comedic possibilities, notably in conversation with her younger self, exchanging barely disguised bafflement at her prime minster’s antics.

What’s worse than one Margaret Thatcher? Two!

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Handbagged runs to Saturday, 10 October.

Jane Howard

06-10-15 

Contents page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre