Handbagged by Moira Buffini at Cheltenham Everyman

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini ©Tristram Kenton

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini ©Tristram Kenton - Credit: ©Tristram Kenton

It’s Liz versus Maggie in this wonderful play, beautifully cast: the story of the Queen and Margaret Thatcher brings laughs, insight, and a sprinkling of nostalgia to a world gone mad, says Katie Jarvis

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini ©Tristram Kenton

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini ©Tristram Kenton - Credit: ©Tristram Kenton

My favourite and enduring Spitting Image joke is the one about Mrs Thatcher and her Cabinet sitting down to dine in a restaurant. “I’ll have beef,” she tells the waiter. “What about the vegetables?” he asks. “They’ll have beef, too,” she replies.

That joke says so much about our country and our late, esteemed, former PM:

• The way she flipped male-female power-play on its head;

• The way (a very few) public characters can, oxymoronically, be both comic and immensely respected, all at the same time (Boris Johnson being another);

• The way her Cabinet was there to fill awkward spaces (”It’s hard to listen when one knows one is right.”)

• And, most importantly of all, that we can even tell such jokes without a single twinge of unease. Lucky us. Unlucky Russia. Unlucky North Korea.

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And Moira Buffini’s wonderful, witty, knowledgeable, hilarious, revealing, reminding, sure-footed play captures all of that, and more. And it does it ingeniously – not only by juxtaposing Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (“Why doesn’t she just call me, Ma’am?”), but by juxtaposing both women’s younger and older selves.

Oh, gosh. You need to see this play.

The stage is careful not to upstage any of these characters: a simple, but not immediately obvious, outline of the Union Flag (my only quibble with the play’s research: as far as I know, it’s only a Union Jack at sea), lit red, white and blue at strategic moments. And onto it walks Thatcher the elder, talking about Freedom. Freedom and Democracy. Values worth dying for. “We must never stop resisting those who want to take them from us.”

And after the echoes of these fine words die away, in walks the Queen with a kindly, “You look as if you need a chair!”, dragging one helpfully across the stage to an irritated Mrs T.

Ah, the awkwardness of early days. As the Queen phrases it, “I thought, if she’s got a dog, we have got a subject.” Of course, she hasn’t got a dog.

And the fun begins.

It’s fun on all fronts, too. There’s the relationship between the PM (the Queen’s eighth) and Her Majesty, that ducks and dives like birds on a politician’s expensed pond. Each has their turn being comic: the Queen, who doesn’t like the theatre, particularly: “We saw War Horse here recently. We liked the horses.” And Mrs Thatcher’s asides, many taken from real life, such as her love of Willie Whitelaw, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie,” she innocently told journalists.

But the true stroke of genius is in the double-analyses: Queen and PM; older and younger selves. They take us through the highs and the lows of the nation: the riots of 81; the miners’ strike; Northern Ireland; the Falklands, to name but a few. The highs and lows of the personal: that Thatcher never phoned the Queen to offer her condolences after the murder of Mountbatten; Mrs Thatcher taking a military salute the Queen thought should only be for her; the awkward picnic at Balmoral, where the Queen washed up and the PM tried to stop her.

And there’s great fun to be had in breaking the fourth wall - including their tussle over whether or not there should be an interval. Mrs Thatcher, of course, wants to work through it.

We know that much about this relationship is extrapolation - and presented as such. But you can see exactly how it was extrapolated. And, in its quirky wisdom, it reveals likely ‘truths’ many of us might never have examined before. One of the most interesting, for me, is the Queen’s horror at what she perceives as Mrs Thatcher’s racism – which she realises finally, is more a case of pity for those not blessed to be British.

If democracy and freedom are to die for, then so are the performances in this magnificent evening of four actors who utterly embody their parts in voice, mannerism and speech: Susie Blake, Kate Fahy, Emma Handy and Sanchia McCormack. The two men, too, who dashed around trying to keep up with the parts they were called on to play – according to them, in a theatrical attempt at economy – were utterly perfect: Asif Khan and Richard Teverson, rival Kinnocks both. Superb.

I’ve always voted Labour. Was never a Thatcher fan. But, at some point in this marvellous evening, I listened to her strong certainty. And I wished, for a fleeting second, she was around in this traumatised world once again, to fight against terrorism; to stand up for true freedom. To be utterly sure.

Plus ça change

“All attacks to destroy democracy through terrorism will fail.”

Handbagged was shown at the Everyman November 16-21, 2015

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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