Handbagged: We Are Much Amused

Wednesday 24th April 2019 at York Theatre Royal.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Moira Buffini’s comedy announces itself as a work of great parody as soon as HRH enters with a mischievous glint in her eye just in time to interrupt and deflate a fiery speech from Margaret Thatcher. You see, Thatcher is conspiring to get a chair brought to her by some kind of imperious telepathy while Queenie E, the little go-getter, swans in dragging a chair behind her. A pretty glorious opener one should say.

In Handbagged we’re given not one, but two Queens and two PMs. The older shadow the younger but also engage, interrupt and contradict rather than existing in an unseen realm. There’s a lot of heresy to unpick between the reflective older women and the lively younger versions and this gives way to some lovely gentle humour. The cast list should also give you an idea of this general playful tone of this piece: T, Q, Liz, Mags, Actor 1 and Actor 2. There’s little reverence except in farce but there’s also no real malice. It pokes fun at high profile unshakeable women and does very well to make the pair (or the four as the case may be) very funny.

Caroline Harker is a very likeable Queen Elizabeth who gets us on side swiftly with her unfulfilled craving for some kind of mirthful connection with the low-curtseying PM. Harker also gives the Queen a liberal kindness which Buffini does not afford to Thatcher; the play is far more sympathetic and affectionate towards the Queen than the PM. The tragedies and divisions of Britain under the leadership of ‘Mags’ are things she’d rather avoid. ‘Liz’ however, will address such horrors as best she can from behind the walls of Windsor Castle…

Alice Selwyn is brilliant as young bullish Mags. What’s great about Buffini’s writing and Selwyn’s performance is the ability to invite mockery of Thatcher while also giving her some rarely depicted humanity. Her passion is potty and her lectures hung out to dry but she’s also given moments of real glory and respect as the formidable trailblazing first female PM. That’s not to say she’s ever likeable, but she is certainly more human here than elsewhere.

Our older overseers Q and T however are out and out angular caricatures. Susan Penhaligon’s Q is a cheeky charmer full of giggles and naughty asides – more than a tad on the Miriam Margolyes side. She’s wonderful. Sarah Crowden’s T is merciless in roasting the Iron Lady as an intransigent stick in the mud with something of an embarrassing reverence for the monarchy and the empire. Crowden is often the best thing about a scene and when her primarily joyless performance is interrupted with a rare smile of happiness, she’s all the funnier for the incongruity. Both women also impress with their voice work here, with Crowden in particular giving stellar hurricane force to EVery SIngle DeCLArative from T.

The marvellous Jahvel Hall and Andy Secombe hurtle about the place to play fleeting glimpses of an array of figures needed to tell the various tales from the reign of MT. Naturally, their manic quick changes are great comedy fodder and the more pacy the piece becomes, the more meta it becomes with Jahvel and Secombe comically bickering over roles and lines while T and Q berate them from the sidelines. Q delights most in this three walled set-up, appealing to us for distant approval in the sure knowledge that her subjects will bow to her will.

Dawn Allsopp’s designs offer clean lines and a sanitised void in which our entertainment plays out. There’s minimal pomp of set design, just very well conceived handling of the space. Jo Newman’s direction (and Natasha Harrison’s movement direction) is skilfully subtle and the undermining quality of many of the exchanges are as well devised as the cleverly crafted physical comedy delivered by the uniformly great cast. 

Handbagged is an intelligent and very well constructed comedy which appeals nicely to playful modern meta tastes. Above all else this play brings a towering pair down to our level to make them fleshed out people rather than figure heads and to allow us to laugh both at and with them. It’s more about wry smirks, chuckles and smiles than laugh out loud hilarity but it’s most definitely a comedy to leave one terribly amused.

Handbagged is a Wiltshire Creative, Oldham Coliseum Theatre and York Theatre Royal Production. It plays at York Theatre Royal until May 11th 2019 and you can tickets here.

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