Handbagged by Moira Buffini at the Caxton Theatre Grimsby 04 March 2020.
With Spitting Image due to make a comeback this production is a timely reminder that political satire is alive and kicking. We are presented with clever caricatures of each manifestation, rather than a pitch perfect impression, and in presenting the characters thus, we see a side of them rarely exposed to public scrutiny before.
Moira Buffini's play Handbagged offers a fascinating, yet imagined, insight into the weekly meetings held between Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Jane Stolworthy's production for the Caxton Players presents us two versions of each character, one younger and one older. The Queens are played by Susan Wheatley-Solley and Debbie Shepherd, whilst our Maggies are performed by Cathy Bennett-Ryan and Helen Kent. Rounding out the cast are Stephen Rayner and Bruce Forster, who play a total of 17 roles between them.
Who knew that our Queen had such an acerbic sense of humour? Her asides and put-downs provide some deft, comic moments. Queen Elizabeth is given life by two very different actresses, each demonstrating cut-glass vowels, persuading us that we are in the presence of royalty. Susan Wheatley-Solley embodies the role perfectly and makes a significant impression when greeting members of the audience as if on a Royal walkabout.
Meanwhile, Debbie Shepherd’s younger and more vibrant Queen shows us that she has always been a force to be reckoned with and was certainly never going to give in to Mrs Thatcher.
As the younger Maggie, Helen Kent demonstrates a steel that earned the nickname of the Iron Lady. Her rise to power bearing all the hallmarks of a slightly more determined Lady Macbeth in Kent's hands, we understand her drive and desire.
And in her later years, her transformation is complete as Cathy Bennett-Ryan manages to strike fear into the hearts of all who knew Thatcher as their leader. The plummy, deep voice, a blend of conviction and moral certitude, is captured especially well in the opening exchanges between the two elder iterations of the characters. There are times when we can imagine poisonous bile dripping from Thatcher’s lips as she pays lip-service to her Queen. Her Majesty, to all intents and purposes realises the game but humours her anyway.
Though much of the play calls for the two women to recall the history of Thatcher’s time in office at No 10, comic relief is offered by the two male actors who personify 17 roles between them. The roles range from Dennis Thatcher to Nancy Reagan and are played with relish by Stephen Rayner and Bruce Forster.
Stephen Rayner, employing a wide array of accents, mannerisms and vocal ticks manages to portray everyone from a very convincing Dennis Thatcher, to a stereotypically Aussie Rupert Murdoch. With only subtle costume changes, he handles it well. Maggie lambasts him for sliding from Dennis to Loord Carrington far too easily, but he does so effortlessly.
Bruce Forster’s varied characterisations are equally rich and varied as he serves as a courtier through to Kenneth Kaunda but his piece de resistance has to be Nancy Reagan, resplendent in a green dress that steals the show. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the show. But we are treated to an irrepressible Kenneth Kaunda, a wonderful, mild Scots accent and also the voice of reason, politically, in the play.
Though this play’s subject is political, it rarely feels like a political play per se. It is playful and irreverent and by setting the play with two oversized Union Flags adorning the walls, we are cleverly reminded of the meta theatricality of the piece. And huge congratulations must go to the team responsible for the design and realisation of the set. It looks magnificent and the red carpet looks absolutely pristine, though one would expect no less in the presence of royalty. Everything is designed to remind us that we ARE watching a play and not merely a documentary.
Overall, the play will never convince us to love Maggie Thatcher, but that is not really its purpose. It offers insight into the relationship between the two most iconic female leaders of the twentieth century. And it does so with warmth and passion and the Caxton Players are to be commended for making a bold programming choice.
Handbagged runs from Saturday 7th March to Saturday 14th March at the Caxton Theatre, Grimsby. Tickets can be purchased online from www.caxtontheatre.com.