There’s a fine line in even the best productions between portrayal and impersonation. It’s a tightrope which Moira Buffini’s comedy-satire Handbagged – currently on a national tour following its London success – treads impeccably. That’s also partly due to Indhu Rubasingham’s taut direction, the sets and costumes designed by Richard Kent.
Above all, it’s due to the six actors. Precisely what the relationship was between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher is something at which commentators (and scriptwriters) guess but cannot confirm. Handbagged has two actresses playing each of these two strong characters, one as an older person and the other as Queen or Prime Minister in early middle-age. The conceit works perfectly.
Acting honours must go to Susie Blake as Q, who has seen so many premiers come – and go – over her reign that a woman one is a mere novelty. Blake radiates a marvellous air of controlled, slightly sceptical acceptance of the changing world around her – watch her face when other characters apparently hold centre stage. This is a woman who knows when to accept the world’s vagaries, partly through observation but also through experience.
Kate Fahy manages the look and voice for T equally well, her inability to deliver anything but thinly-disguised lectures gratingly reflected in her vocal range – note-restricted and never less than mezzo forte. There’s a pleasing air of genuine curiosity inherent in the way Emma Handy presents Liz; Sanchia McCormack gives Mags all the conviction – and lack of humour – which will give the older woman her strength. And, of course, her weakness.
The cast is completed by Asif Khan, flourishing an array of accents and stepping out as a scarlet-suited Nancy Reagan with full flouncing flourish as well as the President of Zambia, and Richard Teversham – stetson-wearing Reagan, Press secretary O’Shea, bright-buttoned Dennis Thatcher and a grumpy Prince Philip. Bit parts each of these latter may be, but they’re far from insignificant.
Whatever Khan and Teverson may say in the exchanges where they step out of character, the sum of their contribution is as great as that of their principals. Two or three hundred years ago, politicians (and the occasional royal) settled their differences with sword or pistol. In 20th or early 21st century Britain, quieter weapons are used. Their effect is just as deadly.
Handbagged runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 October. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 November.