Review: Funny and poignant look back at the Thatcher years on Coventry stage

Susie May-Lynch as Maggie and Hugh Sorrill as Denis Thatcher
Susie May-Lynch as Maggie and Hugh Sorrill as Denis Thatcher

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Handbagged at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

The era of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was remarkable for many reasons, and was one that changed Britain for good (or ill).

Love her or loathe her, there was no middle ground at the time. In spite of her, “Where there is discord may we bring harmony…” speech on the steps of No 10 when she first took office conflict was at the heart of her policies, appeasement an anathema. She took on everyone, from the miners to the universities. Nothing was sacred. The only institution she couldn’t touch was the monarchy. Through it all, riding somewhat aloof from the rough and tumble battles of the day – and they were rough – was the Queen, like a watchful mother, concerned, anxious, an embodiment of values that stood the test of time.

Meetings between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher could not have been congenial. There were huge differences in class and attitude, and each could justly criticise the other for their shortcomings and privileges. So the scene for Mora Buffini’s behind-the-scenes look at the relationship between these two immensely influential women provides a fertile ground for drama.

For me, the most poignant moments came at the end. For all the many very funny jokes and the sharp social and political satire, I found the end of Mrs Thatcher’s reign on stage to be truly moving. It was tragedy in the true theatrical sense: a powerful figure brought low by a single flaw. In her case it was her arrogance, which became more shrill as her time at No 10 wore on.

Susie May Lynch played her brilliantly. Her portrayal of the younger Mrs T was never less than forceful, but towards the end it took on a kind of madness as her character fought to preserve her position and the principle of no compromise that had become her battle cry. She overreached herself, and like Coriolanus, was brought down by the little people around her - not the people en masse but the rest of the political establishment without which even she could not govern.

There were many in the audience at the Criterion who remembered the Thatcher era, for whom the play had a particular power. It’s a power more akin to Spitting Image, the famous satirical TV show of the time played out by rubber faced puppets, than it is Panorama. It is a series of short-ish sketches following the key events of her premiership and returning again and again to the weekly meetings that are obligatory between the monarch and her loyal Prime Minister.

Anyone who goes to see Handbagged immediately compares the portrayals of the characters with their recollections of how they were. They must look and sound ‘real’. Key to this is accent. I particularly liked Elizabeth Brooks’s rather matronly Older Mrs Thatcher: her anger had a depth to it that the younger Mrs T’s did not. That isn’t a criticism of the playing, but a reflection of the subjects they portrayed. Susie May Lynch’s Younger Mrs T was often shrill, in a hurry to get on, as indeed she was.

The Queens are sympathetically played by Christine Evans as the Older Monarch and by Jean Firth as the younger. Jean Firth’s character spends a great deal of time feeling sorry for people, like a Madonna. She was played as someone one might actually like, if one ever got close, whereas Christine Evans’s Older Queen had somehow risen above the conflicts and rather enjoyed the opportunities for barbed reflection that her position and longevity granted her.

The men in the play have a lot of work to do, and they do it very well. Actor 1 (Sam Grant) and Actor 2 (Hugh Sorrill) play a number of secondary characters, representing many of the leading figures of the day. There’s a pantomime twist as Actor 1 appears as Nancy Reagan; and Actor 2’s portrayal of Denis Thatcher combined tenderness for his Iron Lady wife with unswerving loyalty to the cause. One of the funniest, and at another level, most moving moments came with their joint portrayal of Neil Kinnock, especially his “I warn you…” speech, delivered on the eve of the 1983 election, in which he prophesied the consequences of inequality that Thatcherism represented. With hindsight we might say that he wasn’t entirely right, that the kinds of inequality he predicted have not quite come to pass, though they are still there in other forms, and there is still time for them to emerge.

Handbagged touches the pulse of an era that reverberates with us still.

* Handbagged ran until September 8. Visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk for details for future productions.