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Review: One Queen and One Maggie? Moira Buffini goes for two of each in Handbagged

HANDBAGGED_image_Web-711x1024Handbagged, Moira Buffini's new play currently in preview at the Tricycle Theatre, is certainly a play of broad scope and imagination.

It follows the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister - a period of 11 years - with her Majesty and Maggie played simultaneously as younger and older women. Clare Holman is the younger Queen, Marion Bailey the older while Fenella Woolgar is the younger Thatcher and Stella Gonet the older. The rest of the characters are picked up by Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle who even fight over some of the parts but more of that later.

Taking on a political figure like Thatcher and, to a certain extent the Queen too, is a bold decision and one fraught with dangers and difficult decisions. Firstly do you nail your colours to the mast on how you view these two women or do you leave it up to the audience to bring their own views and prejudices?

And secondly, with so much history to draw from what do you leave out? It is something that Buffini has tried to address having Mohan raise certain topics that have been missed out or skimmed over sort of like theatrical footnotes. The effect is similar to a play within a play. Mohan and Rawle discuss their and fight over who should be Neil Kinnock using their contractual terms and conditions as ammunition.

The fourth wall is broken, Maggie and the Queen argue about whether there should be an interval or not albeit while staying resolutely in character. They challenge Rawle when he plays 'himself' and gives his personal opinion on a political matter asking 'why does your opinion matter?'.

Some of these devices work really well and some not so and I couldn't decide whether it was a necessary or unnecessary diversion from the main topic. And on that score its interest depends on your knowledge, certainly the most interesting elements of Thatcher's career were the bits I didn't really know about.

Buffini does nail her colours to the mast fairly early on (she's obviously not a Thatcher fan) and as a result the Queen comes out by far the better - if that is what indeed she intended. And there we have another problem, I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of telling this particular story is. You get to see two very different but equally powerful women but the balance seems tipped more towards historical fact rather than fiction or at least that's what dominates the narrative.

What we learn from Buffini's imagined conversations between the Queen and Thatcher is that the Queen likes a joke and a gossip and finds Thatcher's lack of humour cold and off-putting. 

That all said there is much in this play to enjoy. For a start the six actors are superb. The Thatchers and Queens are done with almost professional impersonator precision and Rawle and Mohan seamlessly switch through a wide variety political figures. There are some funny moments and the skill with which these actors interweave their dialogue in what must be a technically difficult script to pull off has to be applauded. You certainly won't see anything quite like this on stage in London at present.

However I can't help feeling that Buffini has presented something just a little too unwieldy and not quite as focused as it could be to be truly affective.

Handbagged runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 9 November.