Handbagged at the Kiln Theatre review: history repeats itself in this imagining of the Queen and Thatcher

 (©Tristram Kenton)
(©Tristram Kenton)

History repeats itself. Moira Buffini’s smart, sharp play about the Queen’s supposedly antagonistic relationship with Margaret Thatcher premiered at this theatre in 2013, months after Thatcher’s death. This long-planned revival finds itself carrying even more posthumous weight. Too soon? Actually, no.

Handbagged features not one but two charming, affectionate portraits of the monarch - the first responding to the Iron Lady’s character and policies from 1979 to 1990, the second commenting from later age - that emphasise her compassion and tact. There’s nothing to upset royalists or even conflicted republicans here. Ardent Thatcherites may be less pleased with the parallel portrayals of their idol, though.

Having two versions of the Queen and Thatcher, and two male actors reduced to multiple, humiliating bit parts, is central to a witty script that packs in equal amounts of information, speculation and wry commentary about gender roles. “I never said that,” complain the older Q and T (Marion Bailey and Kate Fahy) of things that the younger Liz and Mags (Abigail Cruttenden and Naomi Frederick) utter in their private meetings and unrecorded asides. And vice versa.

Here we see what happens when an apparently unstoppable force meets an apparently immoveable object, Thatcher strident and awkward, the Queen secure and emollient. Buffini makes the case that the 80s saw a profound shift in the British character, away from the wartime spirit of “all in it together” and towards selfishness: she also acknowledges the absurdity of having a woman with a diamond hat express this. The four actresses each capture a thoroughly entertaining version of the two women’s distinctive vocal tones and mien.

In action: All four versions of the Queen and Thatcher (©Tristram Kenton)
In action: All four versions of the Queen and Thatcher (©Tristram Kenton)

The men, meanwhile, interrupt the established narrative – union-busting, the Falklands War, the collapse of communism – to force discussion on the 1981 riots, anti-gay Section 28 legislation, and the disastrous Poll Tax. There are in-jokes: Romayne Andrews, who is black, has to play Nancy Reagan but refuses to do Enoch Powell. He and Richard Cant fight over the role of Neil Kinnock and complain about their contracts.

It’s “meta”, but not annoyingly so. The Queen even overrides Thatcher, who typically wants to press on, to insist on an interval. It’s often her favourite part of a play, she tells us: she never much liked the theatre, though she liked the horses in War Horse.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production unfolds at a finely calibrated pace in front of an exploded, skeletal Union Jack supplied by designer Richard Kent. Lines about Prince Andrew, Jimmy Savile and trickle-down economics land differently than they did in 2013, and there is some final dialogue about dying and dementia that I think is new.

Buffini’s queen is arguably too much of a liberal fantasy and her Thatcher too much of a Gorgon, the former always defending the poor and minorities against the latter’s support for divisive internal policies and racist regimes abroad. Right now, neither of these exaggerations feels like a capital offence. This is a delightful show, more timely than it was ever meant to be.

Kiln Theatre, to 29 Oct;