Hold on to your handbags. If you thought one Iron Lady was intimidating then just wait until you experience the premier effect of a double helping of withering put-downs.
Moira Buffini’s eye-wateringly funny comedy, Handbagged, sees bouffants and pearls at 20 paces as the most powerful woman in British politics meets one of modern history’s most iconic heads of state.
We’ve already had, in The Audience, a behind-the-scenes peep at what happens when the PMs visit Buckingham Palace for their weekly chats with the queen.
Buffini has honed in on one prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was born six months before Queen Elizabeth. One was raised a shopkeeper’s daughter who gained a place at Oxford and rose to become this country’s first woman Prime Minister; her contemporary was born to rule.
No-one knows what is said during the weekly royal chats over tea and crumpets so playwrights can take enormous liberties – and Buffini does.
Director Indhu Rubasingham plays clever with the play, knocking down the fourth wall to allow the cast to interact with the audience, with hilarious effect.
Susie Blake, who is priceless as Q, the older version of the Queen, squints over the footlights to the packed auditorium (I watched it at Oxford Playhouse on Friday), and makes the most wonderful off-the-cuff remarks.
“I don’t want this to get dull. We have a lot to get through before the interval,” she regally announces.
Her waspish remarks about Kate Fahy’s mature Thatcher, accompanied by the royal mannerisms – the eye rolling, the glare, and, most of all the imperceptible sucking of the royal teeth like she’s chewing on something disasteful – had me crying with laughter.
Blake and Fahy, as Q and T, are narrators to a story that starts at the beginning of Thatcher’s first term (1979) and ends with her resignation 21 years later.
The actual tale is acted by Emma Handy’s sublime turn as a young Liz and Sanchia McCormack’s quite terrifying performance as a younger Mags.
But at times all four women are engaged together in rapier-like conversations, the queens – young and old – putting up a united front against the might of a double-dose Maggie.
Joining them on stage (and I do hope their nerves will last to the end of the tour) are Richard Teverson and Asif Khan who play a variety of male roles but all come in for a verbal battering from one or both Maggies.
Teverson plays nine roles from Ronnie Reagan and Denis Thatcher to Michael Heseltine and Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams while Khan is asked to play, among others, Enoch Powell.
He looks at the audience in disbelief and refuses, the actor saying that it wasn’t in his contract, but he capitulates when “Maggie” gives him a stern dressing down.
While there is political point-scoring by the Rottweilerish Maggie against the Queen there is no doubt that they make a formidable double act.
McCormack’s impression of Maggie is unerringly perfect. The ferociousness of her tongue-lashings, the glint in her eyes, and most of all, the wagging finger which brought home her opinions, are used to deliver a razor-sharp performance.
Handy’s lighter touch as the young queen compliments the rather cynical, more experienced, older version.
This gift of a comedy doesn’t stop entertaining for a second. A caustic aside and a derisory look to the audience by Blake’s Q and I was royally roaring with laughter.