REVIEWS: Handbagged

Tuesday 20, June 2017

Director – Lynne Foster, Assistant Director – Iain Sutton-Holding

Although just 4 years after its first outing in London the timing of this production is still remarkably topical. Against a backdrop of a highly politicised UK with a female Prime Minister losing her cabinet support and a hollowed out Queen’s Speech still ringing in our ears a reprise of the Thatcher years reminds us all that “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or perhaps in a post-Brexit world and taking extreme liberties with the translation – politicians change but the out-of-tune policies don’t.

The device of using two Margaret Thatchers and two Queen Elizabeths allowed for both direct dialogue between the two younger protagonists as well as commentary, reflection and an insight into private thoughts from the older pair. This was clever and relied on great pick up on cues, subtle facial reactions and only occasional movement around the stage to maintain our interest. Let’s be honest, this historical review was fascinating and included a war (Falklands), terrorism (Brighton bombing), civil unrest (miners’ strike), African diplomacy and much more besides. Yet, to inject more direct humour while letting Mrs T and the Queen maintain their dignity, not to mention dramatic credibility, we were treated to cameo appearances from Rupert Murdoch, Kenneth Kaunda, Gerry Adams, even Ronald Reagan and his wife in drag – all gamely played by Kevin Stemp and Mark Preston. This was impressive stuff, particularly the accurate accents and mannerisms captured by Kevin.

The set was static and consisted of a faded version of the Union Jack on one wall and a faded “Tory Torch” on the other. Whether these were meant to symbolise the status of a once proud nation in the autumn of its years or simply to offer some meaningful relief to an otherwise blank canvas I don’t know. The result worked and focused the attention on the action, or more specifically the dialogue, since apart from occasional synchronised hand bag movements the use of the stage was necessarily limited. The key to this play was the willingness to suspend belief and accept that these conversations, notes of which were never kept, could have happened. The playwright hadn’t succumbed to the twin temptations of demonizing Thatcher nor over-aristocratizing the Queen and the director allowed her actors to play it straight. Andrea Dalton and Debbie Miles both did a splendid job of capturing Mrs T, with Andrea perhaps having the more challenging task of conveying contemporary responses to actions which are now long gone, if not forgotten. Jane Smith was quite a sparky older Elizabeth, giving free rein to her thoughts, rather like an elderly relative who is not PC. Laura Hill was more circumspect but displayed a diplomatic caution that was never inflammatory but somehow lit the fire.

I really enjoyed the combination of historical review, as seen through the prism of these imaginary conversations, and the injections of humour from some notable footnotes in modern British history. Many of Mark Preston’s explanatory interjections were aimed at young people who were not around during the Thatcher years. It was a shame that there seemed very few young people in the audience. They would have had much food for thought. Congratulations on a thoroughly good production.

Stewart Adkins

Deputising for Alex Berriman,

Regional Representative,

NODA

MICHAEL GRAY

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court
20.06.17
Moira Buffini’s entertaining conceit lets us eavesdrop – a fly on the fourth wall – as Liz talks with Maggie. They met weekly over tea for eleven years.

Of course, “no notes were taken”, so this is all “crass surmise” and speculation, but it does give a unique insight into the politics of the Thatcher years, as well as fabulous opportunities for the actors. 

Director Lynne Foster fields a top team of six actors. Mrs T and HMQ have two each – like the Bennett twins in Lady in the Van – allowing for amusing meta-theatrical exchanges. The Thatchers especially are given to bickering. The men are relegated to minions, with two jobbing actors taking on a huge variety of walk-ons, from Hezza to the Gipper. They are impressively done by Mark Preston – Kenneth Kaunda and a convincing Nancy – and Kevin Stemp – Gerry Adams and both consorts. Preston’s role provides political balance, reminding the younger audience member about the importance of, say, the miners’ strike or Greenham Common.

Where did she get that accent ?”, muses her Maj. Vocally, all four women are unnervingly accurate – Maggie’s breathy sincerity, Liz’s thin patrician. They are intended to be a younger and an older incarnation, I think, though it was not always apparent in this casting. Debbie Miles begins with an entirely convincing speech; Andrea Dalton is frighteningly forceful. Jane Smith is excellent as the grumpy, frumpy Queen, riffling through the Royal Ascot guide kindly provided by today’s Times. And Laura Hillengagingly plays the somewhat younger – in her fifties – monarch when her hair was still resolutely dyed Chocolate Kiss.

There are occasional dips in energy – musing on jam, faffing with trolleys in black-out – but generally the pace is good, our attention captured by these six excellent performances.

I can remember when the Lord Chamberlain’s Office strictly vetoed any stage depiction of the reigning monarch. Now of course the Queen is ubiquitous on the boards, from A Question of Attribution to The Audience. Buffini’s piece is a welcome addition – not just a history lesson, and not simply knockabout satire. Both the Monarch and her eighth Prime Minister are often sympathetically portrayed; the Brighton Bombing and the death of Mountbatten genuinely moving moments.

THEATRE LIFE

I do remember Mrs Thatcher although I was too young to really grasp the political climate at the time but this playful and interesting speculation on what might have gone on behind closed doors during the 11 years that she was Prime Minister and her weekly meetings with Her Majesty was very enjoyable and at times quite moving too.

There are usually two Queens and two Thatcher’s on stage at any one time: these are older and young versions who occasionally disagree. It was reported that both Margaret and the Queen had a difficult relationship and the brilliant writing and portrayal of this piece surmises that perfectly.

Even the interval is a bone of contention: The Queen wants a break, but the PM is determined to press on.

Debbie Miles as the older Mrs T gave a solid performance showing great control in her delivery of the part and she was partnered by Andrea Dalton as the younger and more aggressive Margaret. In fact, Andrea had got the intonation and mannerisms of the part down so well it was hard sometimes to remember that you weren’t watching the actual Iron Lady herself.

As Her Majesty, Jane Smith gave a very convincing performance as the older Queen, her vocal imitation spot on and very believable as the slightly irritable monarch at times while Laura Hill as her younger self, had all the Royal composure you would expect and when both greet the commoners you did feel like you were in the presence of gloved royalty.

Casting Mark Preston, who seemed to morph into every character he undertook and Kevin Stemp, who reminded me of Tony Robinson, in all the smaller roles was inspired. Both played multiple parts as various people involved in the headlines of the day including Dennis Thatcher, both Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Mark Preston looking very fetching in a red dress and leopard skin heels), Gerry Adams, Arthur Scargill, Neil Kinnock, Michael Shea and Geoffrey Howe, as well as breaking down the fourth wall by chatting to the audience.

To complete the circle, the actors periodically get to comment on the way the show is being handled and the parts they are required to play.

Many of the major events of the period are touched on, including Zimbabwe independence, the Falklands War, the miners’ strike and the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing, but this is anything but a dry history lesson. We will never know what actually happened every Tuesday for 11 years in those meetings but tonight’s production gave us a glorious peak into what might have been.

Do try and see this if you can as it offers a great evening’s entertainment which won’t disappoint.

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