Handbagged review: Camp tribute to the Queen needs a juicy plot
Kiln Theatre artistic director Indhu Rubasingham was so nervous last night that she forgot her words on stage at the Handbagged press night. It’s not common for a director to be treading the boards when a show is open, they’re normally in the audience, but this was no ordinary press night.
Following the Queen’s passing, opening a comedic show about Her Majesty’s fraught relationship with Margaret Thatcher that in parts suggests the Queen was rather (whisper it) simple-minded in her tastes was not a decision the theatre took lightly. It was “one of deep consideration,” Rubasingham said, before we collectively observed a minute’s silence.
It also hasn’t been much longer since Liz Truss was sworn in, a Prime Minister who proudly styles herself on Thatcher. You want your play to feel relevant, but perhaps this is a bit too close to home. Once Handbagged gets going though, there’s really no deeper reason this show shouldn’t go on.
Frankly, after endless images of a lit-up coffin dictating the news agenda, seeing Her Majesty back alive and well is an ironic and welcome distraction, especially when the cast is this good. Abigail Cruttenden and Marion Bailey as the old and young Queen have spectacular chemistry. Cruttenden is the spit of The Crown’s Claire Foy not just in looks but how she mirrors the young Monarch’s bright-eyedness. Bailey presents the monarch with her shoulders relaxed and it’s wonderful to watch them gossiping and fussing about the stage, mimicking the energy and curiosity we saw of Her Majesty when she would appear on TV.
Handbagged presents fictionalised accounts of the Queen and Thatcher’s weekly Prime Ministerial meetings, loosely playing on the idea that the Queen was the only woman Thatcher worked closely with in a cabinet surrounded by men. As young Thatcher, Naomi Frederick is as cold as you’d hope, but it is Kate Fahy that has the full package: impeccable wig, formidable gait and precision-tooled intonation, she is uncomfortably convincing playing a lecturey Thatcher in her prime.
Richard Kent’s set is a brightly-lit expanse, something like a TV studio, which works well as a platform for the volatility of these conversations. You’d hope it’d be funny, and thankfully it is, with some killer lines and a couple of amazing physical skits, not least Thatcher groaning through a picnic at Balmoral, hating being outdoors.
But by the end of Act 1, the format begins to drag. There is essentially no story, and in place of that the show picks out key historical events from the 80s, like when Thatcher first met the Reagans, and the miners’ strikes, which are handled particularly well. (“You’re deploying my Police like an Army,” this politically-astute Queen barks.) But there is something uninspiring about the way it unfolds, the play lacking any sense of jeopardy, and by about 1984, I found myself thinking about how many years we had to go.
Buffini’s idea is to show with two versions of each character how easily stories can be changed throughout history. Both of these women forget or adapt versions of historical events at some point, and the whole, clever idea of the fictionalised accounts is to force us to question our images of both women and wonder what might really have gone on.
Handbagged’s thoroughly camp tone is barrels of fun, with plenty of lines for the highlights reel – the problem is it needs a story to lure us back after the interval.