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Handbagged at the Kiln Theatre – review

The seminal play about Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher returns

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Tristram Kenton

One need only look towards the Southbank, where thousands queue to pay tribute to the late Queen, to know the monarch forged a real emotional connection with those around her. The public fascination with Her Majesty's private demeanour has long prompted the popularity of many dramatisations, including the original 2013 premiere of Moira Buffini's Handbagged at what is now the Kiln Theatre.

That the play is just this month being remounted at the same venue is inexplicably timely, programmed to coincide with this year's Platinum Jubilee celebrations and ultimately being enjoyed in memoriam. Eerier still is that when this play was first produced, it was Baroness Thatcher who was being recalled posthumously, having died only a few months previously. Equally fascinating is that Buffini's script echoes so much of the current national dialogue with mention of the late Queen as a figurehead of hypocritical privilege – while also acknowledging her constitutional powerlessness.

A whimsical cousin to Peter Morgan's royal biopic and The Crown predecessor, The Audience, Buffini's play follows the two titans through the trials and triumphs of their working relationship in the 1980s. The ingenious conceit is that each is portrayed throughout by two actresses, one who experiences each historical event in real time and another who does so in hindsight with fondness and regret. Some political landmarks such as the Falklands War and the end of Apartheid are played out more fully, while others such as discord within the royal household, are only alluded to. In addition, the fourth wall is not so much broken as spiritedly ignored: there is debate over the necessity of an interval, interjections to provide historical context to a younger audience and references to two supporting cast members as hired actors playing several parts.

The thrust is much more towards Thatcher – these years were, after all, the most exceptional chapter of her life while the Queen's service as monarch both preceded and outlasted her. The enduring depiction of the divisive Prime Minister is one of unflinching obstinance, her unwillingness to concede being the precursor to her demise. Appropriately, Kate Fahy and Naomi Frederick are uniform in their Thatcherite indifference.

Marion Bailey reprises her role from the original production with enormous charm, though her characterisation of an older Queen Elizabeth II here cannot quite escape her portrayal of the Queen Mother as seen on The Crown, a little more cavalier in her wit and expressive than we've come to recognise the Queen to be. Abigail Cruttenden is perhaps more familiar as the younger Queen, though more time is spent good-naturedly poking fun at her fondness for horses and tendency to gossip than exploring her personal stances.

Meanwhile, against a stoic Queen and a stubborn PM, the play's supporting players are primed to shine. Romayne Andrews provides both comic flair and moral accountability as he presses an increasingly bullish Thatcher for comment on working class resentments and institutionalised racism, even while dressed as Nancy Reagan. Alongside him, multi-roleing is made an artform by the chameleonic Richard Cant as he switched between a scene-stealing Denis Thatcher and a swaggering Ronald Reagan as well as various others.

Far more satirical than serious, Handbagged offers a light-hearted take on the pair's reported feud. Might the historical reconstructions be more theatrically impactful if the dialogue weren't all so retrospective? Perhaps. But it serves as a fitting and uncannily well scheduled tribute to the late monarch that offers audiences more than proximity to a heavily guarded coffin, it offers the chance to bask in the fondest, warmest recollections of the beloved Queen, one who is remembered here for her devotion to equality, duty and all those she reigned over.