Handbagged

‘Handbagged’

Bromley Little Theatre – Friday 11 June 2021

This was what we’d been waiting for! The whole experience – from the 119 into Bromley, pasta and wine at Zizzis and the balmy evening stroll up East Street to our own Little Theatre after over a year’s wait in the interminable Covid foyer.

Inevitably what was missing was the animated buzz of conversation in the bar where playgoers mingle in excited anticipation of the performance. Instead, carefully distanced arrows and screened areas led to a masked barman who stood ready to supply drinks that could only be consumed back in the auditorium. Prior to this, timed arrivals and temperature checks were undertaken before entry was permitted. Despite these carefully planned restrictions for which BLT must be congratulated, in no way was our anticipation dissipated.

Entry to the auditorium revealed around a third of audience numbers carefully spaced apart. Tony Jenner’s plain set of Union Jack flats provided a non-distracting backdrop which allowed us to focus on the action of the play itself. Tracks from ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Oklahoma’ seemed strange choices as background music prior to curtain up until it was explained that these had been among the Queen’s favourites on her 90th birthday. Well, who would have thought…

Both Maggie (Sue Higginson) and the Queen (Pauline Armour) were ‘partnered’ by their younger versions, Julie Binysh and Debbie Griffiths respectively. Despite the accomplished performances of all four ladies, however, I was not altogether convinced that the ‘partnerships’ idea worked and found myself thinking that perhaps ‘Crawfie’ (Maggie’s real-life close confidant and companion, Cynthia Crawford) and a similarly close confidant to the Queen might have made more convincing characters.

I liked the choristers’ rendering of ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’ as a prelude to Maggie’s dominating entrance. Immaculately coiffured, costumed and replete with a black handbag, Sue Higginson could not have been more convincing than the lady herself. Ultimately, however, her voice and delivery were pitch-perfect and her performance a delight.     

Similarly, Pauline Armour’s Queen was a hoot. Again costume, wig and accent were faultless as was her sense of position which remained stubbornly aloof throughout.

While I could never quite understand any physical attraction which some deranged Tory cabinet ministers may have had for Maggie, I would have better understood had she been played by Julie Binysh which is perhaps why the ‘partnership’ didn’t quite come off for me. Certainly, the contrast between the wigs of the two was striking, to say the least.

Again, although her younger Elizabeth whose clipped accent was a joy, I felt Debbie Griffiths might have been better served by having been able to play an alternative ‘partnership’ character created by the author.

And so to the outrageous range of male characters played respectively by Dave Oakley and Howie Ripley – I’m sure both actors will forgive me for the odd admission I may have made while trying to keep up with the bewildering energy and changes of character with which each bounced on and off the stage throughout the performance. In no particular order then:

Dave Oakley – Denis Thatcher, Peter Carrington, Ronald Reagan, Arthur Scargill, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine, Irish terrorist, Rupert Murdoch, Geoffrey Howe, Duke of Edinburgh…

Howie Ripley – Palace footman, Ian Smith, Kenneth Kaunda, Enoch Powell, Arthur Scargill, Neil Kinnock, Kenneth Clarke, Queen’s Private Secretary, and memorably his scarlet skirted, uproarious Kenny Everett drag impression of Nancy Reagan.

Altogether then, congratulations to Dan Armour and his excellent cast and crew on yet another outstanding BLT production which is slowly but surely bringing the dimmers back up to the theatre in the Borough.

Brian McEwan