Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

thatcher front

Carol Deakin as the younger Margaret Thatcher with, behind, Pip Oliver as the older Maggie, left, Maura Judges as HRH the younger and Denise Phillips as HRH the elder. Pictures: Emily White


Highbury Theatre Centre


Handbagged comes within a gnat’s whisker, or perhaps in this case, whisper, of being quite brilliant.

It is fun, as sharp as anything Wilkinson’s or Gillette could produce, witty, telling and for those of us of a certain age, not so much history as memory.

This is a play about two powerful women, one a grocer and tobacconist’s daughter who had a hand in inventing Mr Whippy ice cream, married to a sausage maker executive; the other reputedly the richest woman in the world, albeit much of her wealth in priceless paintings and artworks, a £100m stamp collection, palaces and lands being more in her stewardship rather than her ownership.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher and Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Prime Minister and Queen. Moira Buffini’s play employs imagined conversations, comments and thoughts of the two protagonists studded with a few genuine quotes and reports.

The premise coming over is that the Iron Lady, as a Russian journalist dubbed her, was single minded in her belief of what was best for Britain and the world, a belief that saw any left leaning view, and it did not need to lean very far, as at best Communist at worst terrorist. She was against unions, against Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe. uneasy about any independent African Commonwealth members and even condemning ANC’s moves to end apartheid, resisting sanctions on the all-white Pretoria Government.


Ken Agnew as Denis Thatcher, glass in hand, with Denise Phillips as Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen, on the other hand, despite unrivalled wealth and privilege, at the very pinnacle of the Establishment, is seen as almost left wing, a champion of the poor, the oppressed, the African nations and indeed defending all her subjects in all corners of the world. Her views she saw as not left wing or even political, but merely Christian.

What happened in their weekly audiences we will never know although the few utterances we were privy to, including a Queen’s Christmas broadcast - apparently it is her only speech with no Government influence - gives a little flavour of what might have transpired, while rumours and speculation at the time suggested the pair were hardly likely to become best friends, indeed becoming friends at all, it seemed, would have been a considerable stretch.

The play depends upon an ensemble cast with Pip Oliver superb as the older, less mobile and aging Thatcher, T, uncannily capturing her intonation and looks as she speaks with that slow deliberation and purpose.

Denise Phillips brings a regal air to her role as her madge, Q, she has captured the voice, the clipped speech and the gestures of the leader of the House of Windsor. An equally superb, majestic foil to the Iron Lady.


Pip Oliver as Mrs Thatcher, circa 2010

They are now, or at least thet were in 2010 when Handbagged was written, handbags being the symbol of authority for both our leading ladies. Thatcher, who was to die three years later, was 85, the Queen a year younger.

But their clashes, sorry, weekly audiences, came in the 1980s, 30 years earlier, which brings in Carol Deakin as Mags and Maura Judges as Liz, their younger selves, still with the same attention to detail at their arm’s length weekly sparrings, with the older Mrs T and HRH butting in with explanation, asides and objections from time to time.

And around this duo of duos are the menfolk, hundreds of them, but, times being hard, all played by Ken Agnew and Paul Steventon-Marks.

Paul pops up, or more accurately shuffles and limps in first as an ancient palace retainer serving tea to HM and PM, he is also to give us Neil Kinnock, Nancy Reagan, a wonder to behold (did she really have a beard?) and the Queen’s press secretary Michael Shea and, to give an international flavour to proceedings, Zambian president and Robert Mugabe mentor Kenneth Kaunda.

Ken, who argues vigorously for the role of Kinnock, has to make do with Denis, permanent glass in hand and trilby, cowboy President Reagan, urbane Peter Carrington and, the quiet, meek and softly spoken and soon to be Thatcher assassin, Geoffrey Howe. He also gives us one line – act 2, so look out for it – as Prince Phillip.

The pair being delightful light relief, not that this is heavy going by any means, but they bring a different aspect, the squabbling and rivalry between actors trying to make a living with their collection of bit parts in a larger production.

Paul also adds an extra dimension, raising points the script has apparently missed out, such as the miner’s strike which riles both old and younger Thatcher demanding to know whose opinion the audience have come to hear, and at this point it is perhaps no longer hers that is of interest, but she is saved by the script, and the miner’s strike becomes more an aside than an issue.


Paul Steventon-Marks brings Kenneth Kaunda to the Commonwealth party, much to Mrs Thatcher's dismay.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set is a minimalist delight, three video screens to add context on the back wall, a raised platform for HM and PM with the younger Thatcher and Queen sitting around a table supplied with an endless supply of tea and scones and cakes with Reagan, Kinnock, Uncle Tom Cobley or whoever flitting in from the wings or merely changing a hat and character to add the next chapter to the deliberations.

Steve Bowyer’s lighting highlights telling moments while Tony Reynolds has used a job lot of patriotic music any last night of the proms would be proud of.

Rob Phillips, so often in the spotlight, has taken the directing reins and keeps what is a dialogue heavy play on the lightest of tracks full of gentle, and not so gentle, digs, comments and asides as the two most powerful women in Britain during the 80s go head to head.

Its fun, thoughtful, entertaining and wonderful theatre - a laugh out loud comedy with bite, One should not miss it as one of our two stars might have said, so lets get going as the other might have added. To 05-03-22.

Roger Clarke


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