It seemed likely that the revival of Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s 2010 satirical hit about the reputedly dicey relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, would be cancelled – and, on the day of the funeral, it was. The following day, I pitched up to the Kiln feeling hesitantly heretical: what would it be like to see the Queen impersonated after all those sober hours of contemplating her coffin on television?
As Marion Bailey stepped on stage, I could swear I spotted tears in her eyes. An exceptionally sympathetic actor, she made it possible, within seconds, to relax. Buffini’s play is, not unexpectedly, far more merciful to the Queen than to Mrs Thatcher, and in Bailey’s hands, satire came close to tribute. She brings sweetness, kindness and intelligence to the role. The Queen’s niceness becomes almost a moral quality. As she totters around in frumpy, apricot-coloured twinset, she looks about to purr, although also, at times, privately eye-rolling and tempted to growl at her prime minister’s intransigence. The Queen’s younger self, impressively played in parallel by Abigail Cruttenden, is politely concentrated yet frequently nonplussed by Thatcher. There are gentle jokes at the monarch’s expense – digs about her love of horses – but only one serious potshot. When the Queen is holding forth about poverty, Thatcher retorts in an exasperated aside that the Queen does not pay taxes.
This is an entertaining, pacy and damning scamper through Thatcher’s 11 years in power. She is also played by two actors to represent her older and younger selves. Naomi Frederick plays the younger with vim, but it is Kate Fahy, the elder, who steals the show. She has mastered Maggie to comic perfection, catching precisely the faux-hushed, breathy quality of the later voice – at its most mannish when in pursuit of femininity. It’s an excruciating pleasure to hear her. Fahy has also mastered the strange up-and-down movements of the head when speaking, like a nodding dog mascot but more swayingly unpredictable.
The two men in the cast, Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant, each play several roles and do the piece proud. As the Queen’s butler and a saucy Nancy Reagan, Andrews is a hoot. Cant has an unfailing grip on the absurd, too, as a ganglingly offputting Denis Thatcher and a mindless cowboy of a Ronald Reagan. There are several satisfying meta-theatrical moments when the actors appear to shake off their script: Andrews flatly refuses to play Enoch Powell; Cant is determined to enlighten younger members of the audience about what the Thatcher years were really like. Indhu Rubasingham, who directed the original, pulls off this revival with confidence. And seeing Bailey, at the opening of the second half, walking through the stalls, waving a white-gloved hand, has a revenant poignancy.
The samovar has given way to the spaceship in Vinay Patel’s admirable and eccentric reworking of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with a cast of mainly South Asian heritage. James Macdonald’s production is an experimental feat. Within the Yard’s small space, a revolving stage has been installed (great work from designer Rosie Elnile) with hi-tech, talkative, all-lights-flashing artificial intelligence as its centrepiece (name of Divya, she is pert and tactless, her voice amusingly conveyed by Chandrika Chevli).
One misses the romance of the Russian estate, but this brave new play relates to a moment in which we are on the verge of losing so much. Here are future citizens of a translated universe, mourning a pastoral scene. But do we have lift-off, theatrically speaking? Only intermittently. This is a claustrophobic piece for the crew aboard the spaceship, and too often a particularly stultifying form of Chekhovian ennui sets in and spreads into the audience.
Anjali Jay plays Captain Prema Ramesh (the Madame Ranevskaya equivalent) fluently; Neil D’Souza plays her brother, Lohit, an amusingly tiresome compulsive talker. There are good supporting performances from Tripti Tripuraneni as an embattled Varsha; Maanuv Thiara as Abinash, chief engineer; Gavi Singh Chera as Pawan, stellar cartographer; and Aaron Gill as Sailesh, a gauche and lovestruck quartermaster who serenades the computer in a particularly diverting scene. But the most enjoyable theatrical ingredient is Hari Mackinnon’s old retainer, Feroze (Firs in the original), in Russian butler garb of shabby black, whose unfocused vision, strange high-stepping gait and jerky arm movements reveal him to be a robot. Feroze is saturated by images of the past, and the implication is that the past is no longer bearable for anything other than a machine to store. He is comic and tragic – a perfectly Chekhovian combination.
It takes less time than your average driving lesson (under an hour) to watch Clutch, Will Jackson’s funny, involving and heartwarming new play, empathically directed by Philip J Morris. On stage are two black leather car seats, side by side. The driving instructor and the learner driver, his pupil, have been brilliantly cast for contrast. Max (Geoffrey Aymer) is larger-than-life and black, and instructs Tyler (Charlie Kafflyn), who is small, white and transgender, and the play is about the sympathy that develops between them as they discover by accident (and because of an accident) the vulnerabilities in each other’s lives. There is no stalling in this playlet, although Tyler gets off to a bumpy start in the car. Fasten your seatbelt – and go.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Cherry Orchard ★★★