Stella Gonet facing a big challenge to play ‘hated’ Margaret Thatcher

Rehearsals of Handbagged by Moira Buffini @ Tricycle Theatre. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham.

Rehearsals of Handbagged by Moira Buffini @ Tricycle Theatre. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. (Opening 26-09-13) ©Tristram Kenton 09/13 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: - Credit: ©Tristram Kenton

Play brings together 20th century icons - united by shop where they buy handbags

There’s been much dramatic speculation on the antipathy between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen – but one connection they shared was buying their handbags from the same shop.

Playwright Moira Buffini has crafted a political satire from this fact, in which the two 20th century icons are tethered to their Launer bags, drily commenting on the behaviour of younger alter-egos.

As a half-hour sketch for the Tricycle’s 2010 Women Power and Politics season, Handbagged had audiences in stitches.

Now, it’s extended to full-length, complete with a pair of male actors playing a merry-go-round of roles from Dennis Thatcher to Ronald Reagan.

Actress Stella Gonet was just 16 when Thatcher became Prime Minister, growing up in Scotland where the Tory leader was loathed.

“We all hated her with a passion, I can just hear them now: ‘Oh Stella, how could you possibly?’

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“She’s a tough person to live with. There are lines in this which make my blood boil, or run cold. She’s such a strange person, so different from people I know and love.

“The other day I was talking to my 14-year-old daughter (with fellow thespian Nicholas Farrell) and she pulled me up: ‘stop talking like Thatcher!’

Gonet, a hugely experienced stage and screen actress who’s perhaps best known for her lead role in fashion drama The House of Elliott, has been working on that voice, the walk, the grip on the handbag, for weeks.

“There’s so much material available. I have spent a long time listening to her voice to the point where I can’t hear any more. I am an older Thatcher, looking at my younger, blonder, bluer self, which gives Moira incredible licence to write her with an attitude that you can’t have when you are playing someone in the present.”

While Thatcher comes off badly, Gonet remarks gleefully that the Queen emerges with “huge wit”.

“She says all the things that everyone wishes they’d said to Thatcher.”

“Moira’s put these two iconic, incredibly fascinating women on stage and imagined what they might say, playing around with the idea they didn’t get on. There’s masses of humour to be mined in that and it’s making us laugh an awful lot in rehearsal.”

Although Thatcher is sitting somewhat uneasily for the left-leaning Gonet, she’s had to burrow into her psyche to produce more than an impersonation.

“She was so driven, she lived for the job and was a lonely woman.

“There’s a line in the play that after the age of 15 she had nothing more to say to her mother. She had no time for women at all, even her own daughter. The only intimacy you see is when she mentions Crawfie (Cynthia Crawford), the lady who did for her.”


Like Meryl Streep’s characterisation of Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Gonet plays the former PM as vulnerable from dementia.

Although, she’s quick to point out, Handbagged is no hagiography.

“I want my daughter to come and see this. Her idea of Thatcher is a woman who had an extraordinary funeral, but I want her generation, who didn’t live through it,to get the facts of what she did, of what she destroyed and how much she changed this country – and her legacy. Of children who don’t care about politics because everyone’s out for themselves.”

n Handbagged runs at The Tricycle until November 9.