In her blue suit, with a handbag in the crook of one elbow and that look on her face, disdain mixed with something more complex, Stella Gonet is more Thatcher than Thatcher.
Moira Buffini’s Handbagged – a reworking of a short-play she wrote for the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season back in 2010, which was also directed by Indhu Rubasingham – covers similar ground to The Audience, which looked at the Queen’s relationships with the various Prime Ministers of her reign. But though the territory is familiar, Buffini’s witty play approaches it in new and inventive ways, as two Queens and two Margaret Thatchers, older and younger, share the stage to agree, disagree and bicker over their memories of their weekly meetings. Press speculation was always rife that the two disliked each other, and here the whole drama is played out with the benefit of hindsight not only off stage but on it, as the older incarnations – T and Q – look back on the conversations of the younger Liz and Mags.
There’s something genuinely exciting about watching a play which contains four strong performances from four talented female actors, that has also been written and directed by women. There’s been so much debate over Thatcher’s status as a feminist figure, and considering the extent to which she tried to distance herself from her own sex, it will no doubt remain a point of conjecture for years to come. Still, the way in which women are choosing to tell her story and to inevitably, in some way, reclaim it, is worth celebrating. A monster she may have been, but at least these days she is inspiration for some impressive and memorable performances.
As the two Thatchers, Fenella Woolgar and Stella Gonet play off each other wonderfully. Both are recognisable without slipping into parody, with small differences in their performances that suggest, with real lightness of touch, the inevitable gap between the older and the younger, between innocence and experience. Marion Bailey is remarkably like the public-facing Queen of newspaper print, though her younger counterpart, Clare Holman, brings a naturalism and a sense of normality to the role which, while likeable, feels just a little misplaced. On its own, it is a fine performance, but it feels slightly out of step with the tone of the production: all three other versions have more in the way of mimicry about them, which can make Holman look uncomfortable at times.
Using the anchor of the weekly meetings to chart the terms of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministerial leadership, Buffini deftly paints a picture of a Thatcher who is so desperately conservative, snatching at the last remains of a dying empire, that she adores the Queen and everything she stands for, if only as a figurehead. She can never allow them simply to be two women in a room together: they can only be Britain itself. It’s fodder for quite a few good jokes, as Liz’s attempts to build a human relationship through confiding in Mags are rebuffed, but ultimately their meetings look lonely. Power has isolated these women, stranded them together, despite the fact they have nothing in common.
At times, Handbagged feels bogged down by its own meta-theatricality. And the conceit of giving a voice to two real people in amongst these icons is a nice idea which doesn’t quite come off, as Buffini turns the two male actors, multi-roleing as everyone from Denis Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, into ‘actor’-characters. These nods and winks at the audience feel like Buffini losing faith in her ability to write these women in a believable or moving way, but the play is strong enough in and of itself without all the meta jokes and they only make the writing look uncertain of itself.
Still, Buffini’s sense of the comedic means that even these sequences are consistently entertaining, and the moments when her characters reach out to the audience do occasionally complement the power struggle at the play’s heart. Mags and Liz openly vie not only to influence the audience’s understanding of events, but to make the play run a course of their own choosing. They grapple over whether or not to have an interval; they heckle each other’s performances. When this device works, the production is at its most fascinating: a thorough examination of different kinds of power and the people who wield it, its intoxication and its isolation, through the prism of recent history.