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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Handbagged
Vaudeville Theatre  Spring-Summer 2014

Moira Buffini's political comedy, transferred from an off-West End run at the Tricycle Theatre last year, is an enjoyable evening of satire with one curious quirk – its content isn't quite what is promised. 

Ostensibly an imagining of the personality and philosophical clashes that arose out of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's weekly meetings with the Queen, it keeps getting sidetracked into a broader critical history of the Thatcher years, ending up more of a history lesson than a character study. 

Tradition calls for every Prime Minister to meet regularly with the monarch, to keep her up to date and draw on her discreet counsel. The image of the two strong women going head to head for a decade is a fascinating one, and for at least some of its length Buffini's script has fun exploring it. 

Her primary device for combining imaginary re-enactment with commentary is to have Thatcher and the Queen each played by two actresses, Fenella Woolgar and Lucy Robinson respectively as they were then, and Stella Gonet and Marion Bailey as their older selves looking back. 

This generates multiple views of every encounter, usually to comic effect, as when one or another of the four will say something startlingly frank or critical only to have her other self jump in with 'Of course I never actually said that'. 

There are some other telling moments in the imagined encounters, as when the Queen admits to tuning out sometimes during Thatcher's lectures or Thatcher pointedly chooses not to hear the Queen's tentative criticisms. 

And there is one real revelation in the claim that her Christmas message is the one speech by the Queen that is not written by the government, so that her homilies on family and Christian charity can have a subtext that is her only legal way to get involved in politics.

But for the most part, the pictures Buffini paints of both women, and the performances of the four actresses as directed by Indhu Rubasingham, rarely get beyond the familiar public faces or the comic versions of Spitting Image, and anyone looking for the playwright to go much beneath the surface is likely to be disappointed. 

Meanwhile, there's an entire other layer to the play that repeatedly breaks the illusion and the fourth wall, as two supporting actors each playing multiple roles keep pushing things beyond the weekly encounters. 

Neet Mohan, between being a palace footman, Neil Kinnock, Nancy Reagan and others, also plays a bolshie young actor who keeps interrupting things to demand that the play deal with some of the darker episodes and implications of the Thatcher years, while Jeff Rawle (Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch and others) is also an older actor just happy to have a job and eager not to rock the boat. 

You can't help feeling that Buffini, having set out to write one play, just couldn't resist throwing in all her righteous anger at Thatcher and wound up writing another. 

It is largely funny and, assuming you are not an unregenerate Thatcherite, full of judgements you're likely to agree with and enjoy hearing. It's just not what you probably came in expecting.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Handbagged - Vaudeville Theatre 2014 

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