An audience with the Queen and Mrs Thatcher

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM


Tricycle, until 16 November


Soho, until 20 October

A feast of pleasures, and some annoyances, at the Trike. Handbagged, by Moira Buffini, is a fictional account of the weekly audiences between Mrs Thatcher and the Queen. The staging is extremely odd. Buffini gives monarch and prime minister two impersonators each. This enables us to trace the minor developments in hair colour and frock choice between 1979 and 1990. But also encourages the pairs of actors to outdo each other. Here are the results.

Marion Bailey plays the older Queen as an unbudgeable human lighthouse. The facial gestures are beautifully done and Bailey gets that stoical out-thrust lip pout that has become the Queen’s signature grimace in recent years. The beautiful Clare Holman is miscast as the younger Queen, in her mid-60s, and her prim, brittle impersonation is short of grandeur and authority. Stella Gonet is the runner-up as Thatcher. She’s a tad perfunctory and her voice has a hysterical hint that makes her sound like a cartoon witch. Fenella Woolgar’s version reaches sublime heights. She must have spent hours poring over an archive of TV clips and practising Thatcher’s low, breathy drawl and her quirky habit of accelerating through the middle of a phrase and slowing at the end. And Foolgar captures the emotional timbre of Thatcher’s voice. She gives it an intrusive and lightly scornful matronly intimacy. Even Meryl Streep, in The Iron Lady, didn’t find this level of detail.

The play offers a wealth of vivid, homely truths as the ladies tussle for supremacy over tea and cakes. Thatcher calls the Queen ‘majesty’, never ‘ma’am’, and when the Queen invites her to indulge in gossip, Thatcher stiffens and declines to play along, even though the rules of confidentiality would make it perfectly acceptable. Gulfs of ice separate the pair. When the Queen ventures a criticism, Thatcher rebukes her from a lofty position using the legal nicety ‘your government’ to mean ‘me’. ‘Constitutionally, you must ally yourself with your government.’ The Queen, retaliating unconsciously, invites Thatcher outdoors to have a squelch across the palace grounds in her high heels. Thatcher also has to accept the yearly invitation to Balmoral, which she takes to like a duck to treacle.

Right at the end, in the week of Thatcher’s downfall, a hint of warmth emerges. The Queen swaps the teapot for a decanter, and pours them both three fingers of scotch. Director Indhu Rubasingham weaves this pleasing human tapestry with admirable skill. But the play’s structure can’t bear the scale of Buffini’s ambition. She wants to analyse every issue of the 1980s — the riots, the miners’ strike, the Cold War, the Falklands, and so on — but her canvas is too narrow for a history lesson so she namechecks each crisis and then chucks it aside. Result: a script that feels well informed but insubstantial.

And the walk-on roles are mishandled. Seventeen cameos are played by just two actors. Paunchy oldster, Jeff Rawle, charges in and out as Reagan, Scargill, Murdoch, Heseltine, Howe, Kinnock and Prince Philip. A young Asian actor, Neet Mohan, has to impersonate Nancy Reagan, Kenneth Kaunda and Enoch Powell, and others, whom he doesn’t remotely resemble. Buffini tackles this difficulty by getting Rawle and Mohan to break character and to play themselves, as actors, complaining about their contracts and the script’s absurdities. This makes the problem ten times worse. And it wastes time. Despite two great performances, and an ingenious Union Jack set made from painted trellises, the show feels a bit underpowered for a West End transfer. It has the air of a rag-week satire performed to an unusually high standard. Here’s my tip. Take it to a university theatre or to a tented stage at a summer festival next year. With the beers flowing, with the adrenalin running, and with the Thatcher hate-spores erupting on all sides, the show would be a riot.

Hag by The Wrong Crowd at The UnderbellyThe Wrong Crowd presents Hag Photo: Richard Davenport

Soho Theatre welcomes an experimental play, Hag, by a newish troupe named the Wrong Crowd. Hag is a cocktail of folklore, soap opera, on-stage puppetry and dream sequences. The central character appears to be a baby-devouring sorceress of Slavic extraction. Some humans appear at some point although without any clear purpose. The programme notes are more informative than the show. The Wrong Crowd have a ‘vision’ for storytelling which is ‘inventive, joyful’ and ‘provocative’. They forget to mention plotless, artless, mirthless and relentless.

The set looks like the evisceration of a tramp’s bivouac. And the actors yell their lines at Twickenham volume for 70 minutes. If an evening of poorly narrated shrieking is your idea of fun, then you’ve got a treat in store. The show is about to tour the West Country. Earplugs in, Plymouth. You’re next.

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