Everyone likes secrets, especially dramatists. So it’s no surprise that the unraveling of the mysteries of the current Queen Elizabeth’s famously undocumented weekly meetings with her prime minister proved audience catnip in Peter Morgan’s fictional “The Audience” starring Helen Mirren. But playwright Moira Buffini got there first with “Handbagged,” a 2010 short about the queen vs. Margaret Thatcher, since expanded into a full-length comedy that just bagged an Olivier Award. Pin-sharp performances and Buffini’s fleet and delicious script ignite Indhu Rubasingham’s highly enjoyable West End transfer.
Not content with mere neat impersonations of the two stateswomen who were heavily rumored to have had a difficult relationship, Buffini upsets expectations with a smart dramaturgical trick. Audiences settle into the opening niceties of Marion Bailey’s devastating embodiment of the queen (the grim set of her mouth, the arm held tight to the waist with fluttering fingers) meeting Stella Gonet’s braying and loftily hair-sprayed Mrs. Thatcher. Then up pop younger, contrary versions of themselves, played, respectively by firmly well-bred Lucy Robinson and, with uncanny precision, a magnificently patronizing, breathy Fenella Woolgar.
Not knowing what was said at these meetings gives Buffini free rein to imagine the best — and, amusingly, the worst — of the women’s often frostily well-mannered, polite behavior. She delivers most delight from the way in which they indulge in a covert version of the traditionally male game of jockeying for position.
The doubling device adds yet more flavor. In their initial 1979 meeting following Mrs. Thatcher’s general election win to become prime minister, the younger queen observes of her husband, the duke of Edinburgh, “Philip and I had money on the result.” “No we had not,” snaps her older self, anxious to keep the record clean. These tightly choreographed bouts of comic contradiction of statements and events by the older, more knowing, versions of the women add perspective, food for thought and, most importantly, laughs throughout.
Once the premise has been crisply set up, Buffini and helmer Rubasingham create what turns out to be a bouyant, opinionated history lesson, with none of the earnestness that term implies. All the key events and characters of Mrs. Thatcher’s 11-year “reign” — she was finally forced out of her remarkable third term by her own party — are ushered in via a witty succession of 16 cameos by Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle.
Playing up to the artificiality of the conceit, Buffini neatly uses those actors to question simultaneously the politics under discussion and the effect they had on ordinary people. Complaining about all the characters he has to play, Rawle grumbles, “Some only have one line, some are thin caricatures, but times are hard and it’s a job.” Knowing that neither of the women were fans of theater, Buffini makes comic mileage out of them being alternatively discombobulated and intrigued by the men’s ability to play everyone from the upper echelons of British politics to Nancy Reagan.
Not all those performances (and accents) quite come off — both Reagans in particular are painted with too broad a brush — but since Rubasingham maintains so brisk a pace, weaker spots never slump into longueurs.
Mrs. Thatcher, known as “The Iron Lady” and played on screen by Oscar-winning Meryl Streep, was an intensely divisive figure who, for many, remains a major hate figure. Thanks to Rubasingham’s astute direction, the pointed laughs about Thatcher’s beliefs, notably her immaculate self-belief, don’t come at the expense of her personal dignity. Yet the surprise — and success — of the evening stems from the fact that despite a poignancy stealing over the perspicacious comedy, punches are never pulled.