Photo: Kaley Etzkorn
Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

Handbagged: Tea with the Queen and Margaret Thatcher

Have you ever wanted to spend an evening getting to know Margaret Thatcher? Now’s your chance – and there’s two of them.

Kate Fahy stars as Margaret Thatcher, and Susan Lynskey also plays the Iron Lady – only a younger, 1980s version who goes by Mags. Do Fahy and Lynskey portray smart, articulate, ambitious characters? Yes, but you knew they would. And would you believe me if I told you these Margaret Thatchers are also funny, unpretentious and not to be missed at Round House Theatre in Bethesda?

Handbagged, at Round House through March 3, is a play about the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth, played by Jennifer Mendenhall, and – you guessed it – the 1980s Queen Elizabeth, or Liz, played by Beth Hylton. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, this production marks the American premier of Moira Buffini’s hit play. Thatcher and Elizabeth dominated British and world politics in the 1980s, and as some Trump jokes made so very clear to the audience, the effects of their relationship are still being felt today.

The play begins with Fahy alone onstage, reflecting on Thatcher’s life and the reasons for her success. She settles on the word “no,” which she repeats to herself with a mixture of surprise and delight. Fahy tells the audience – this play so breaks the fourth wall that “demolishes” might be a more accurate description – that “no” might be her favorite word, the word the world will remember her for.

Mendenhall joins Fahy onstage and offers her a chair. Here begins the first of their many arguments. Fahy’s repeated response: “No!”

The device of the chair establishes the basic setting for the entire play. In the very next scene, Lynskey, newly elected and eager to begin her work as prime minister, comes to her first tea with Hylton. Underscoring the importance of the relationship between these women, the entire play takes place in front of a small table set for tea – even as the action brings us to Africa and then California, where the chairs double as horses on Ronald Reagan’s ranch.

The chairs also prove symbolic. Who sits on the throne of power, really? When Lynskey has her first tea with Fahy, she fawningly calls the queen’s family the link connecting Britons back throughout their whole history. In response, Hylton makes a polite wave to the audience. That’s the extent of her real power: shaking hands and asking, “How do you do?”

Throughout the play, Fahy and Mendenhall, the older versions of Thatcher and Elizabeth, quibble and argue: “That didn’t happen! I never said that!”

This hindsight perspective gives the audience an insight into the subjective hopes and wishes of these women seeking to define their legacies. This presentation – as opposed to an attempt at an objective history – lets the play soar.

Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault appear in a variety of roles – including Lescault as Reagan and Wilson cross-dressing as Nancy Reagan – providing comedy and essential historical information. Wilson, whose primary role as butler allows him to overhear conversations between the important women, frequently interrupts Fahy and Lynskey. He reminds them of the people affected by Thatcher’s policies – coal miners unemployed after Thatcher shut down mines or South Africans oppressed by apartheid.

Lescault appears in a more supportive role, especially as Thatcher’s husband Denis. But at some point, even he flinches at some aspects of Thatcherism, including the Poll Tax, a standard tax on everyone regardless of income level, which precipitated Thatcher’s downfall.

For onstage dramatic experimentation and a fascinating history lesson, don’t miss this production of Handbagged, at Round House Theatre until March 3. Tickets start at $30. Check the calendar for 2-FOR-1 Tuesdays, #FreeBeerFridays, post-show discussions and a sign-interpreted performance on February 24. Learn more here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org