Wednesday, 11 September 2019
THEATRE REVIEW: Handbagged - The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-u-Lyme
Whoever thought we’d be nostalgic for the '80s - the real decade that taste forgot? Leather ties, ra-ra skirts, legwarmers, and 'flock of seagulls' hairdos. And to go with the tragic fashions, we had the tragic music - decent songs buried beneath a welter or production gimmicks, all that horrible reverb, and Phil Collins’ trademark ‘gated’ drum sound.
Oh, yes, and there was the politics, too - divisive, confrontational a supine and ineffective left, a monstrous, all-privatising right, the Miners’ Strike, the war over Los Malvinas, riots in Brixton and Toxteth. Not forgetting the Poll Tax (sorry, I meant ‘the Community Charge’).
It probably says a lot about the dystopian times we currently live in that the eighties seems a stable, even comforting time by comparison. The decade also has the advantage of being in the fairly recent past: still alive in the folk memory and with enough connections to our own time (we still know who Michael Heseltine is, don’t we?) not to require lengthy info-dumping. This may partly explain the runaway success of Moira Buffini’s 2013 play, which has received a spate of local theatre productions following on from its West End transfer. Another explanation may be its economy: a cast of six actors (two actors each playing both the younger and older versions of the protagonists and two additional actors playing a multitude of supporting roles). There’s economy in setting, too: a map of Britain covers the circular New Vic stage and an enormous crown hovers above the actors to signify the duality of the monarch and her most monarchical Prime Minister.
The present production, directed by the playwright’s sister Fiona, features Zoe Aldrich as the younger Thatcher (characterised as ‘Mags’) and Jan Goodman as her more mature and (even) less tractable older version. The Queen’s role is divided between Melissa Collier as the young Liz and Louise Bangay as her older self. All four give highly effective performances and Goodman in particular is scarily realistic as the woman who became such a liability to her party that they finally had no choice but to eject her.
Ashley Gerlach and Paul Mundell fill the supporting roles and very funny they are, too. It is through their multi-parting that the meta-theatrical nature of the play is revealed: frequently, they break off to protest at the playwright’s approach to storytelling and the roles they have been assigned (Gerlach’s ‘refusal’ to play his allotted role as Enoch Powell was particularly amusing), while Mundell’s various impersonations of Dennis Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch and Ronald Reagan were all the funnier for landing on just the right side of parody.
The play adopts a mostly linear approach to the story of the monarch’s relationship with her first female Prime Minister, beginning with Thatcher’s election in 1979, proceeding through the main points of her reign-within-a-Reign and ending with her ignominious resignation from her own government in 1990. What Elizabeth ll and Thatcher actually thought of each other is a mystery and will probably remain so, but Buffini uses dramatic licence to extrapolate a play out of the rumour, first recorded in the Sunday Times in 1986, that the Queen didn’t care for Thatcher’s style of government. Thatcher robustly defends her way of doing things, in sections often lifted verbatim from interviews and speeches (including the notorious ‘no such thing as society’ quote) while the younger version of the Queen offers ‘liberal’ counter-arguments. This may seem a bit fanciful, given that the Queen’s own political views are unknown (though they might be intelligently guessed at) but it does provide the necessary conflict without which there would be no drama. Buffini’s research is impeccable, right down to Thatcher’s private (as contrasted with public) opinion of Reagan.
The New Vic is a genuine oasis in the cultural desert of North Staffordshire and its adventurous programming is to be admired and should be supported. Handbagged is something everyone can enjoy and it deserves to play to packed houses.
Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 10/9/19