Susan Penhaligon heads royal revival of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged

Two formidable figures – the Queen and Margaret Thatcher – are reunited in Moira Buffini’s funny, sharp and mischievous comedy, Handbagged which is at York Theatre Royal later this month starring Susan Pengaligon, Caroline Harker, Eve Matheson and Sarah Crowden.

The co-production, with Wiltshire Creative and Oldham Coliseum, imagines what might have happened at the Queen’s weekly meetings with Margaret Thatcher when the latter was Prime Minister.

Entertainingly told and packed with satirical humour, the play sees the two women collide as they share their opposing views of Britain’s role in the world.

Penhaligon and Harker share the spoils as HRH while Matheson and Crowden grapple with the formidable Mrs T.

Completing the cast are Jahvel Hall and Andy Secombe who, between them play a range of familiar characters including Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Gerry Adams, Arthur Scargill and the Duke of Edinburgh.

The foursome took time out from their schedule at Salisbury Playhouse, where the production is playing until Saturday, to talk to Stage Review about the show.

Susan Penhaligon who plays Q, an older version of the Queen, said she was attracted to the project beause she had never done a political satire before.

“I’m very interested in politics and the play made me laugh – and who’s going to turn down the opportunity to play the Queen?

“It’s wonderful to play a real person. You’ve got a blueprint.

“You have to watch documentaries and look at pictures, but it’s a physical blueprint. The challenge is to make them real and not a Spitting Image caricature.

“I have never met the Queen or Margaret Thatcher but I met the Queen Mother once at a film premiere. I stood next to Ronnie Barker.

“I live on a houseboat and recently the loo exploded and it went all over my framed photo of me with the Queen Mother. I got it off, though.”

Caroline Harker plays Liz, a younger version of The Queen. She said: “It’s something I meant to see in London but I was working when it was on.

“I have three friends who’ve been in other productions of Handbagged so it was in my head when it came up.

“It comes off the page so easily, but it is a challenge. I’m trying to work out how much to stick to being The Queen and how much to go with the drama.

“I never met Margaret Thatcher but I have been in the same space as The Queen.

“I’ve been to two garden parties at Buckingham Palace because my mother is on a charity board. The food was lovely. I remember iced coffee and tiny sandwiches.

“I remember the Silver Jubilee when I was at school and that day we were allowed to walk to the end of the drive and wave flags as the Queen drove by.

“When the Queen Mother died I felt I ought to take my children to stand on The Mall because it’s timeless, solid history and it was important to see.”

Sarah Crowden was thrilled at the prospect of playing the older Margaret Thatcher.

“To play Margaret Thatcher! It’s very interesting because she’s far more nuanced than the Spitting Image caricature of her.

“Someone who was so contentious is a little alarming.

“It will be interesting going back to York Theatre Royal. In York I had my first job as an acting assistant stage manager. Prior to that I was an ASM there and one of the other assistant stage managers was Pierce Brosnan!”

Eve Matheson, who plays a younger version of Margaret Thatcher, said: “I never dreamt in a million years that I would ever be asked to play Margaret Thatcher.

“But I tried and it seemed to work so I thought why not?

“Handbagged has four wonderful roles for middle-aged women. And you can cross out middle-aged. We’re experienced.

“That’s not always the way with roles so when one comes along you leap at it. And with the men, they’re playing eight, nine or 10 characters each”.

She agreed that playing a real person presented its challenges.

“I’ve never done it before. It’s a responsibility, obviously, but we’re all thinking along the same lines. We’re not impressionists – although I find them hugely entertaining, it’s a different area.

“We’ve got the opportunity to show a real person. We have to find elements that are recognisable but then search for other aspects of those women, to serve them and honour them.”

Handbagged, directed by Jo Newman, runs at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday before moving to York Theatre Royal (April 24 to May 11) and Oldham Coliseum (May 14 to June 1).​

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