Few people divide opinion as much as Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, but one thing’s for certain – they were two of the most powerful women of the last century.
Olivier Award-winning comedy Handbagged explores the relationship between two of the country’s strongest characters when it plays at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal later this month.
Handbagged opens the clasp on the relationship between two giants of the 20th Century. The monarch, Liz, and her most powerful subject, Maggie – two enduring icons born in the same year.
While one was destined to rule, the other was elected to lead.
The comedy, penned by Moira Buffini, looks at what happens when the stiff upper lip is softened and the gloves came off, which one had the upper hand?
It also speculates on what the world’s most powerful women may talk about behind closed palace doors.
“I’ve heard some theatres won’t take the play, which I think is censorship” Emma HandyActress Emma Handy
Actress Emma Handy plays Liz.
“It’s a very funny play, and a great history lesson, too,” she explained.
“Obviously it’s dependent upon age, but most people will be familiar with what’s in it. You also end up learning things you didn’t know before. A lot of the text is taken from real life, and it wasn’t until I did my research that I realised just how much.
“But it’s a great, fun night out. We were at a venue last week and someone was having a coffee in the theatre foyer cafe during the matinee when they heard the laughter, so they booked up for that evening’s performance there and then.”
Emma, who plays the younger version of the two Queens in the play, says it’s been interesting to step into the stiff shoes of one of the world’s most famous women.
She explained: “There’s something in it for everybody. The Queen has an old-fashioned view of women in the world, in that she thinks men should take the front seat, even though she’s Queen. Margaret has a different view, but they’re both the same in that they surround themselves with men. They don’t seem to like other strong women.
“There’s something wonderful about playing real women. The Queen is one of the most famous women in the world, and most photographed. Doing research for a part is my favourite thing, apart from rehearsing and performing, and she was a very interesting character to research. She puts on a public front that she is neutral, but she has a very surreal life and her private life is fascinating, she has a wicked sense of humour, is very mischievous and always playing practical jokes.
“When you think of her you think of her as not smiling, but a lot of the time it’s because she’s trying not to giggle and is keeping a straight face.”
Handbagged first premiered at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London, in 2013 where it enjoyed a sell-out seven-week run, winning the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre (2014) and nominations for Best New Comedy and Best Ensemble Performance at the WhatsOnStage Awards (2014). The production transferred to the West End the following year where it received an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Comedy 2015.
But it hasn’t been so warmly welcomed everywhere.
Margaret in particular is revered and reviled in equal measure. So much so, some theatres won’t host the play.
And the actors themselves have noticed differing attitudes to the central characters.
“There’s such a variation,” said Emma “In some places Thatcher gets a round of applause before she opens her mouth, which gets our hackles up. We also deal with apartheid and there is some obvious agreement in the audience sometimes, which is extraordinary and makes you a bit sick.
“Where we opened in Kilburn is a very left wing area and Neil Kinnock came and heckled, which was funny. But it deals with both sides, it’s very balanced.
“I’ve heard some theatres won’t take the play, because it has Margaret in it, which I think is censorship. Plus, she doesn’t really come out of it that well.”
Despite not holding Royalist views herself, Emma, who’s most well-known for her appearances on TV’s Wire in the Blood, says the play’s a joy to perform: “I do like the pomp and circumstance of it, the theatre, the beautiful coach. But I think there’s too much given to the extras in the Royal family.
“The Queen is a remarkable lady. She’s led a privileged life, but she works hard. I don’t think we should get rid of them all together, but I don’t think we need all the expense.”
She added: “It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve done. There’s so much you can keep going back to in the script. There’s so much material from the Queen and Margaret to inform your performance, it helps to keep it alive.”
•Handbagged is at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal from October 26 to 31. Tickets, priced from £12, are available from Tel. 08448 112121 or select your own seat and book online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk
We’ve teamed up with Theatre Royal Newcastle to give away two pairs of tickets to Handbagged on opening night. To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: what was Margaret Thatcher’s nickname?
Email your answer and details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk.
Closing date: October 22.