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Updated: May 30, 2021

Moira Buffini

Oldham Coliseum, York Theatre Royal and Wiltshire Creative joint production

Oldham Coliseum

14 May 2019 - 1 June 2019; 2hr 25min with 20 min interval

Sarah Crowden as "T" and Susan Penhaligon as "Q" in Handbagged at Oldham Coliseum. All Pics: Helen Murray
Sarah Crowden as "T" and Susan Penhaligon as "Q" in Handbagged at Oldham Coliseum. All Pics: Helen Murray

There is something mighty curious about this most regal and powerful (well, it features the Queen and Margaret Thatcher) of plays: it's not exactly a play.

There are actors, acting, and there's a script and a set (such as it is), and a few cheap(ish) laughs at the expense of major political figures of the Eighties such as the aforementioned, plus Kinnock, Reagan and his First Lady, Heseltine and the slightly sheepish Geoffrey Howe, to name a few.

What's missing, generally, is a plot or story to get involved in. This is not so much a New Statesman-like satirical comedy, nor even a Horrible History, more an animated lecture or two-hour bout of choral speaking: The Thatcher Years, An Imagined Personal History.

Writer Moira Buffini is better known as the creator of a few National Theatre and London productions and for film and TV (particularly the sexy Harlots). This play has a free-wheeling, half-baked look about it, with four actors playing the younger and older central characters ("Q" and "T"), giving at least an interesting perspective on what people did and said at the time, and what they thought about it maybe decades later. Other actors play supporting characters, especially the men, who share the other roles and even talk about their roles both in and out of character - another of those drama-writers' tricks not often indulged in these days.

But that's it. There's a level of mostly historical information in this chat-heavy, action-light evening that makes it a little wearing towards the end of the first act, though admittedly the action improves as we head into miners' strike territory and the Brighton bombing in act two.

And yes it's funny in parts, but the laughs are often obvious and more than a bit sneery. It is very much like one of those satirical Radio 4 comedy shows, very amusing for half a second at the expense of the political figures generally lampooned, but forgotten as soon as the audience is out of the door because the writers have to get on with next week's edition...

The acting, having said that, is enjoyable, with the revelation Susan Penhaligon as the older Queen. An actress once known for the sexy roles of her youth is here in a silver perm and almost unrecognisable, as well as being note-perfect in the Queen's regal tones. Caroline Harker as her younger self is also no-nonsense and fun to watch, as are Sarah Crowden and Alice Selwyn as the older and younger Iron Ladies.

Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall are the two men in the middle of all that power-oestrogen - though on one occasion Hall joins in to play Nancy Reagan. But then she was always more manned-up than her husband. And see, now I'm doing the cheap jokes too...


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