Handbagged (Vaudeville Theatre)

Moira Buffini’s play, which has transferred to the West End from the Tricycle Theatre, doesn’t fully convince our critic

Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar
Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar
©Tristram Kenton

Now that plays and films about the Queen are de rigeur, Moira Buffini‘s new theatre piece, transferred from the Tricycle, boasts not one Queen but two, and a similar number of Margaret Thatchers.

This is almost too much of a good thing. At the outset there is a neat juxtaposition of these four characters, where they comment on each other’s pronouncements and recollections, but this device wears thin by the second half and the older Mrs T (a bustling, embattled Stella Gonet) is almost sidelined as the younger Mrs T (a terrifyingly composed Fenella Woolgar) takes us through the highlights of her glory years up to the point where Howe and Heseltine "betray her".

The two ladies are assisted in their recollections by two Actors (Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan) who play an array of menfolk who cross their path, including Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Kenneth Kaunda, Rupert Murdoch and most of the Thatcher Cabinet it seems.

There is much banter about how many parts they have to play, who gets to be Neil Kinnock, and who is compelled against his will to be Enoch Powell. The action is set "within these three walls" – a knowing theatrical joke that provides the only real framework to the piece. Who are these people and why are they being all these other people? It starts as a clever, satirical sketch, and one wonders where all these impersonations will lead as the evening develops. But sadly it just continues as more of the same, and there is no real play to speak of at all.

They keep saying "I never said that" or "that conversation never took place", which perhaps gives some kind of imagined insight into the relationship between Her Maj and her first female PM, but two-thirds of the way through one longs for a bit more of a sustained conversation, or argument, rather than the snippets of history we are given.

As a brisk canter through the Thatcher era it has the air of an end-of-term entertainment rather than anything more pointed, or poignant, or carefully crafted. Nevertheless it is sometimes bitingly funny, and the mannerisms of the two great ladies are beautifully observed.

Jeff Rawle gives several outlandish turns, especially as Denis T, Reagan and Rupert Murdoch, but the casting of Neet Mohan as a vampish Nancy Reagan seems wilfully bizarre. Funny, in the sense that any pretty young man dressed up as an older lady can be funny, but what is the point being made?

Marion Bailey almost steals the show with her spot-on portrayal of the older Queen, and the two Thatchers are brilliantly contrasted by Woolgar and Gonet, with the coolly ambitious but beguiling younger woman turning into the imperious and doggedly determined older one who falls victim to her own self-belief.

There is much to savour in all the performances, but the piece also seems to fall victim to its own in-jokery and its constant tone of let’s-play-with-the-audience which, for all its convention-defying artfulness, becomes a little wearisome.

Join us on our WhatsOnStage Outing to Handbagged on 13 May and get a top-price ticket, free poster and access to our post-show Q&A for £33