The portrayals are wonderfully balanced: the Queen’s empathy and hospitality is set against her hypocrisies, and against the cold, but effective, Thatcher.
Knowing that, it may be a surprise to hear of the subtlety with which Handbagged engages in its subject. The principal characters, Queen Elizabeth II and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, appear in two forms: an older pair that comments, reflectively, on the actions of Thatcher’s term as PM, while the younger pair actually progresses through it. The portrayals are wonderfully balanced: the Queen’s empathy and hospitality is set against her hypocrisies, and against the cold, but effective, Thatcher. The script is really made by some wonderful turns of phrase which quickly and uniquely capture the moment, and inject the humour that this “comedy” sometimes forgets. The manner of the writing makes up for the occasional clumsiness of the format.
The structure naturally focuses attention on the arcs on the younger Elizabeth and Maggie (Cait Chidgey and Louisa Pead, respectively). Though the script focuses on history and politics over character, both actresses manage to stand out. For Chidgey, it’s her use of facial expression to say what a queen cannot, which is especially refreshing in a play that needs to spend so much time telling the audience what it cannot show. Pead’s moment comes closer to the end of the script, and her character’s term, when she makes the Iron Lady legitimately sympathetic (which is not easy). In doing so, she becomes a case study for an old theatrical rule: she doesn’t arouse emotion by expressing hers, but by failing not to.
The principal actresses are joined by two actors who fill the various other roles needed to complete the various scenes. Tom Osborne fills his role competently, though he appears to struggle against the script, which uses the actors as a voice of dissent. Though the choice is useful for getting at the bits of the period neither the Queen nor her minister would wish to discuss, it also begins a character arc which never concludes. The other actor’s role is filled by director Paddy Cooper, due to an unfortunate illness. Though obviously the situation is not ideal, and Cooper needs to read from the script, he should be proud of a very capable performance that does not hinder the enjoyment of the production.
Cooper’s influence can also be seen in the careful balance of the scene, from the staging of characters and elements of the set, to the balancing act necessary to keep any of the superlative characters from pulling too much focus. Handbagged rises and falls on its ability to evenly weigh Maggie and Liz, politics and theatre, comedy and drama. The scales even out. Mostly.