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In conversation: Handbagged

Published April 10, 2014

I’m sitting in a dark, cramped non-descript office in the depths of the Vaudeville Theatre waiting for my interview with Handbagged stars Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar to begin, slightly concerned my knees will touch theirs when they take the seats opposite me, when I hear giggles approaching the door and see a beaming face staring in at me. The zealous Woolgar is followed moments after by an equally bubbly Gonet and the two bundle in with yet more giggles. All of sudden the grey room feels like a party, such is the effect of these two brilliantly fun and open women.

Picturing them in their parallel roles playing the stern, famously humourless Margaret Thatcher at two different stages of her life in Moira Buffini’s runaway hit Handbagged might take some imagination if it weren’t for their clear delight in regularly slipping into – in between, you’ve guessed it, more giggles – disconcertingly spot on portrayals of their stage alter ego; their animated faces momentarily becoming still and icy cold as their voices slip down an octave and jolly hockey sticks fun is replaced by stern teacher.

With just days to find out if the acclaimed comedy that imagines the meetings between the Conservative Prime Minister and the Queen – the only thing we know for sure they had in common is that they favoured the same handbag brand – will take home the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, the pair took time out to talk about its move into the West End, their opinion on a certain West End star’s refusal of a dinner date with Maggie T and what it’s like to play a character who could easily have originated the Marmite effect.

What’s it like playing a character you know so many people dislike?

Gonet: Indeed, they either love or hate her, there is no inbetween.

Woolgar: Shall we just say it? She’s…. [leans forward excitedly] divisive! Everyone says it, so let’s just say it. I think you have to go out there with your full armour on, you have to go out there as her. You can’t have one little percent of yourself or it’s not going to work.

Sometimes at the Tricycle we’d get a few heckles and at first it was almost quite fun because you could sort of heckle back, in character obviously. But then you got very worried about it happening because sometimes you could feel the wall of hatred.

Gonet: I can’t do any adlibbing as Thatcher, that’s just not what I want to do. I can play the comedy or whatever, but I’m not going to be heckling. You can! You can think on your feet so quickly! I just go ‘Oh no!’

Woolgar: I almost said something last night, but I didn’t, it was really silly. Neet [Mohan, one of two male cast members who play a total of 17 roles between them] rips some paper in my face and he goes off with both sheets of paper. There was this piece of paper on the floor and I very nearly said ‘You were taught to pick up your litter’ but I didn’t. I did pick it up but I thought I should have said it really.

Gonet: Not only did she pick it up but she [adopts Thatcher voice] folded it and put it in her handbag in complete character, it was extraordinary.

Woolgar: There are moments in the play where you know a bit is coming up that is just going to bring you, if they could, rotten eggs, and it’s a little bit scary.

Have you had any reactions to the contrary?

Gonet: When I come out at the beginning and I just stand and wave, I’ve had people cheering and clapping because they think they’re seeing her again.

Woolgar: I think if we get it right we’ll get both, that’s the point because she was…

Together: “A divisive figure”

The show started life at the Tricycle Theatre. Has it changed at all for its West End run?

Woolgar: Yes it has. There have been quite a few cuts and bits of reworking. It’s all about being in front of an audience because I think we’ll try out some new stuff and if it doesn’t work we’ll head back to some of the old stuff. It’s still a work in progress.

Gonet: There’s a new cast member [Lucy Robinson], so that adds a new dynamic.

Woolgar: It makes it a new play because it can be a bit of a tire coming back to do the same thing that you did before, but we’re not because of the little changes. The space is also so different. The Tricycle felt very cabaret, it felt like a smokey evening and the audience are right there and you can see them and you’re all part of the same group. Inevitably in a West End stage they are set back, you have to alter your performance accordingly.

How do you approach playing the same role?

Woolgar: We are playing the same role, but in some respects we’re not because we’re playing it at such different times of her life, and there are all sorts of ways that her dementia allowed her to become what she was not allowed to be in her time in office, particularly in the early years. There was a control in the early years over parts of her personality that you can simply let rip once she’s gone a bit…

Gonet: Exactly, which is what I love. In rehearsal you do pick up things from the other person but the play seems to be very organic. There’s never a feeling of ‘You are doing this bit’ and ‘I’m doing that bit’.

Did you have to audition together at any point?

Gonet: No. I’d done it before as part of the Women, Power And Politics season and I got asked to come back. Did you audition?

Woolgar: For the part? Yes I did. But I auditioned about 09:00 in the morning and I got offered it by lunchtime [looks smug]. That’s very showyoffy isn’t it?

Gonet: Oh they are lovely those auditions. [Both laugh]

What do you think it is about the play that has made it so successful?

Woolgar: It’s really fun.

Gonet: And you get a lot of heart and you get a lot of quality.

Woolgar: Exactly you get a mixture. She’s very clever Moira because people don’t like to get bashed over the head with ‘Thou shalt hear this lesson’, bang bang bang, as if the audience don’t know it or haven’t had an experience with it. There’s little bits of that and then humour, it’s good fun and it never stays the same.

How did the show react to your Olivier Award nomination?

Gonet: Thrilled! It’s brilliant, I think Indhu has the Midas touch at the moment.

Woolgar: Let’s touch some wood. [Both frantically reach round trying to touch something that’s wood and not MDF before breaking into peals of laughter].

Gonet: It’s fab, it’s great for the play, great for the Tricycle.

Woolgar: And let’s hope we win it! Good luck to one and all.

What is it like working with Indhu?

Woolgar: Dreadful, terrible. No of course not, she’s really fun, super fun.

Gonet: And very hard-working. She’s taken the Tricycle by the horns and taken it onto the front page, it’s brilliant.

Woolgar: And even though I get told off for laughing in rehearsals – I’m a terrible giggler – I know she doesn’t really mean, because she’s sort of got a wink in her eye.

Gonet: She has this phrase ‘In the room, in the room’ because at any chance we’re… [the pair look at each other and break into giggling and chatter]

What are your memories of Margaret Thatcher from her time in power?

Gonet: I was on CND marches and that was my 20s, it was Thatcher. And I hated her. I was Scottish and young, but now I’m thinking of her because I’m playing her.

Does it make you think of her differently?

Gonet: Not politically, but as a human being yes. I admire the fact that she took on all those men. She changed the way. Unfortunately she wasn’t a great champion of women, everyone had to get in by merit. [Adopts Thatcher’s voice] Merit, merit, merit, not because you’re a women. But you’ve got to admire her.

Woolgar: Yes, you’ve got to admire her. She tolerated a level of hatred. That’s something you may not admire when someone comes a megalomaniac, but the level of hatred coming at her from very early on from men and women around the table… In a way that is almost remarkable to have people who clearly have decided very very early on ‘We hate you’ before she’s even got into power, and to push on through, you can’t not admire her.

Gonet: I saw an interview in The Week today with Robert Lindsay saying he had turned her down for dinner.

Woolgar: He turned her down for dinner?!

Gonet: She came to see [a] Beckett [play], which he was in and he said there was a knock at the door saying Margaret Thatcher was inviting him for dinner. I can’t quite visualise that, but apparently, that’s the way he tells it. And he said ‘No’ and she said ‘Why not?’ and he said ‘Because I don’t agree with your politics’ and she said ‘But can’t we eat over a table together?’ and he said ‘No, I don’t think so’. He was saying ‘Now I regret that because I should of’. I can’t quite imagine her doing that in a way.

Woolgar: Well she was quite flirtatious, lots of people have said that.

Has that part of her personality come into your performance at all?

Woolgar: Not really, because…

Gonet: [Interrupts her laughing] Excuse me!

Woolgar: Has it come in for me?! [Shrieks] I’m not even aware of it, isn’t that awful?! Yes maybe a little bit. God I’d forgotten about that, how did I put that out of my brain?

Gonet: People did say that they really fancied her! The wonderful diarist Alan Clarke, he said he would have… [raises eyebrows]

Woolgar: He wanted to impress her, that was the thing. But when she did her first speech in parliament, I think there were an awful lot of comments about her. She loved her statistics and there were comments about her ‘vital statistics’ the next day. You forget that at that kind of level, the kind of tedious boring sexism there was. They were going to impose that on any person, regardless I think of what she looked like.

If you had to play a famous woman from history together again, who would you pick?

Gonet: Agatha Christie!

Woolgar: I’ve done it, we could do that. We should have a pop at the real old biggies shouldn’t we?

Together: Elizabeth I.

Woolgar: It would be nice to have a go her, wouldn’t it?

Gonet: God, yeah. I’d really love to.

If it could have been possible, would you have dinner with Margaret Thatcher?

Woolgar: You’d be mad not to. If you could time travel and have dinner with her through the ages, well… She’s a Shakespearean character really. They talk about every Shakespearean character having to have a fatal flaw and you can debate as to what her’s might be but there’s definitely one, and that extraordinary trajectory is just a gift.

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