There are not two, but four handbags on stage for much of Moira Buffini’s witty, sprightly play about the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Buffini splits both characters into two – the younger and the older – and has them argue with each other and their younger selves. It’s often very funny – “Philip and I had put money on the [election] result,” confides the young Queen. “No we had not,” retorts her older self, shooting her a sharp look – but it also feeds into the play’s droll examination of the inevitable partiality of history.
Buffini’s play predates The Audience (it was first shown in much shorter form as part of the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season in 2010) but enters the same territory. For 11 years, from 1979, the monarch had a private weekly meeting with Mrs Thatcher. We don’t know what passed between them and Buffini frequently reminds us that the whole of the play is speculation by creating a light-hearted, meta-theatrical set-up, in which characters step in and out of the narrative, argue about the structure (the Queen is keen for an interval; Mrs T is in favour of pressing on) and even squabble over parts. The built-in caveat makes for fun but also allows Buffini to explore the contrasts between public and private personalities, memories and facts.
And at the play’s heart is the fascinating prospect of these two women, the same age, both in positions of power, the one elected but transient, the other inherited but enduring. Buffini examines the potential friction in their styles, beliefs and priorities, beginning with the Queen’s dismay at her new prime minister’s solemnity and developing into something much icier over sanctions against apartheid South Africa. But Buffini also suggests a degree of mutual understanding forged through the shared experience of public office.
In Indhu Rubasingham’s deft production the central quartet is tremendous. Fenella Woolgar catches precisely the younger Thatcher’s mannerisms, as does Stella Gonet the style of the battle-hardened Iron Lady; Clare Holman plays the quietly sceptical, understated younger monarch, while Marion Bailey, as her older self, makes brilliant use of the tiniest of facial twitches to convey disapproval or doubt.
Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan gamely play all the walk-on men and quibble over which bits of 1980s history most deserve to be told. It feels overstretched in places, but this is a witty, thoughtful history lesson that also reflects on what history is.