REVIEW: Handbagged, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

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When you have a bearded Asian actor playing both Enoch Powell and Nancy Reagan, and it works, you know you're on to a winner.

Such is the case with Handbagged, the new play by Moira Buffini which imagines the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher: two titanic women, both born in the same year - one destined to rule, the other elected to lead.



There are snippets here, rumours there, but no one really knows for sure what these two great ladies thought of each other, or how their conversations went.

Handbagged aims to fill in the blanks, while taking a wry-yet-insightful look at some of the most important events of the 1980s.

One actor is clearly not enough to take on the role of either the Queen or Thatcher, so Maggie and Liz get two each - Emma Handy and Coronation Street's Susie Blake play the young and older Queens respectively, while Sanchia McCormack and Kate Fahy do the same for the Prime Minister.

The end result sees the younger versions of the characters playing out an imagined aside to history, with the older versions serving as narrators to their youthful selves, in almost an aside to the aside.



Still with me? Fair enough.

The production takes us on a canter through 1980s history, from Thatcher's election and first visit to the Palace in 1979 through to her fall in 1990, taking in the Troubles, the Falklands Campaign, Apartheid, the Brighton hotel bombing, Miners' Strike, Poll Tax riots, and a lot more besides.

Each chapter of history is acted out and analysed in short nuggets, generating fits of laughter which perhaps belie the though-provoking nature of the scenes.

The quartet of female actors to a brilliant job. But, as Thatcher famously said, everyone needs a Willie.



Enter Asif Khan and Richard Teverson, listed in the programme as simply Actor 1 and Actor 2, titles which do not do them justice, taking on, as they do, a diverse succession of high-ranking bit parts including Denis Thatcher, Prince Philip, Neil Kinnock, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, Gerry Adams, and Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia.

Both do a simply splendiferous job, and even risk upstaging the two great ladies.

Khan in particular deserves heaps of praise, beginning as a Palace footman before morphing into Kaunda, then stepping neatly into a pair of red stilettos to suspend disbelief as a bearded Nancy Reagan - and go one further to portray an Enoch Powell of Asian extraction.

Of course, putting on a production focusing on the tenure of a Prime Minister as controversial as Thatcher is a bold move, particularly in the North East.



(My press-night plus-one was the only person I know who has admitted to ever voting Tory - and even than that was only because her mother was the Conservative candidate).

There was room for Thatcher-bashing in Handbagged, however, with Khan and Teverson both becoming voices of descent, giving angry speeches against pit closures and the Poll Tax.

Each was allowed ample room to speak out before being silenced by a Brechtian Maggie telling them no one had paid to hear their opinions. The show was about the thoughts of Thatcher and the Queen, not them.

The monarchy was also given a bit of a bop, with the odd prod at the privileged Queen (who, among other things, did not have to pay Poll Tax).

Insightful, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a brilliant piece of theatre which everyone will be the better for seeing.

Handbagged runs at the Theatre Royal until Saturday October 31.

Read an interview with Actress Emma Handy, who plays Liz (the young Queen), here.