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Clash of the Blues and Royals delivers comedy riches

Handbagged, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, until September 8.

For Margaret Thatcher, exchanging idle pleasantries with the Queen is described as more stressful than a Nato summit. On the other hand, Her Majesty finds a cheerful chat with Maggie about jam-making ‘almost nice.’ We don’t really know these things, of course. Although weekly meetings between Queen and Prime Minister are a matter of tradition, and in Mrs T’s case went on for 11 years, details are never revealed. Moira Buffini’s play cheekily explores the what-ifs of the relationship between two of the world’s most powerful women. It focuses on their vastly different backgrounds and ideologies as they ruminate on the state of the nation and world affairs. For a theatre company, the challenge is to draw out not only the humour but the deeper irony of two such contrasting figureheads quietly circling each other in an unrelieved battle of wits and political manoeuvres. Helen Withers shrewdly directs an ensemble who savour their task and perform with considerable vitality. It doesn’t always scale the peaks of subtlety required by the writer with her younger-and-older images of the two central characters, despite the lively teamwork of the four players concerned. The age gap link becomes a little blurred. But there is no doubting the sheer power of Susie May Lynch’s younger Thatcher, breathing fire over anything remotely related to socialism and the plight of the unemployed, and hilariously attempting a clumsy curtsey or indelicately scrambling down on an unwelcome picnic rug. On the other side of the fence, Jean Firth’s elderly Queen has some wickedly funny moments as she surveys re-runs of her younger days with glee and a certain disbelief.

The play trawls through the incredibly strife-torn 1980s with the aid of two male actors creating images of the likes of Reagan, Geoffrey Howe, Heseltine, Rupert Murdoch and, of course, Denis Thatcher. These are achieved with varying degrees of success, but for Hugh Sorrill and Sam Grant, the best moments are a superbly comical duel of Neil Kinnocks. The company excel with the play’s ample supply of audience jokes, and as an overall evening’s entertainment, the production’s a winner.

Entertaining and wholly believable, is Chris Arnot's verdict.

They were born within a few months of one another. One was a king’s daughter, the other the cherished offspring of a Grantham grocer. Nobody really knows what passed between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher during their weekly meetings at the Palace. Apart, that is, from a footman or some other royal servant hovering in the background. And they would never say. But Moira Buffini’s interpretation of the relationship is not only entertaining but wholly believable. After all, the Sunday Times in 1986 revealed the monarch’s dismay at the “uncaring” nature of her government. Yes, the Sunday Times, owned by one Rupert Murdoch, a trenchant cheer-leader for Thatcherism but not the monarchy. Murdoch is one of a dizzying array of roles taken on by Hugh Sorrill. He starts as a bluffly believable Denis Thatcher before swapping whiskey for wigs to portray, among others, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Not to mention Ronald Reagan and, all too briefly, the Duke of Edinburgh furtively fulminating about “that bloody woman”. It is the two male actors in Handbagged who do the rushing about, making quick, off-stage changes. The other is Criterion newcomer Sam Grant – charming royal footman one minute, Nancy Reagan the next. The four female members of cast stay comparatively still - almost glacially so in the case of Christine Evans who plays the Queen as she was in the 1980s with an icy distaste for her weekly visitor from Number 10. There are times when you sense that the fingers tightly gripping the straps of her handbag yearn to fasten themselves round the neck of her guest. Susie May Lynch, another Criterion newcomer, is impressively strident as the Mrs T of the times, assured of her own sense of rightness in all matters. Elizabeth Brooks plays the older Lady Thatcher, deeper of voice and truculently defensive of her legacy. And Jean Firth is equally believable as the Queen looking back on her meetings with “that woman” about whom “there was nothing remotely funny”. Handbagged has more than its share of funny lines, however. Enough to offset the static nature of the setting. From the Brixton riots to the poll tax, via the miners’ strike, the play is also a reminder of a decade that changed the UK irrevocably. Audience members will have differing views about that. But whatever their political leanings, they could hardly fail to be entertained by two women’s contrasting perspectives on this country and its place in the wider world..

Barbara Goulden writes: Congratulations to all involved in this ambitious, tongue-twisting and truly memorable production. What a versatile and sublime example of ensemble playing from a very funny script. Even the occasional fluffed line was recovered with such panache. Not that young Maggie seemed to put a foot wrong as she captured the cadences of the formidable PM. I loved hearing both the young and old Maggie, along with the courteous and more rebellious Queen who graciously came among us in the audience.Then there was a fond Dennis Thatcher who doubled up as Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch, not to mention the ultimate palace butler who poured tea before turning into Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta ..and finally a rather stylish Mrs Reagan. A painless history lesson with so many laughs, and awesome wigs.

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