If you’ve been feasting on “The Crown,” Moira Buffini’s delectable “Handbagged” will skip you ahead to the Thatcher years. The fast-paced British play freely imagines meetings between the prim queen and the steely Iron Lady, and they don’t agree on much — not even, in this comically self-aware show, whether there should be an intermission.
Buffini’s London hit is getting a spiffy U.S. debut at the Round House Theatre courtesy of Indhu Rubasingham, the show’s original director and head of London’s influential Tricycle Theatre (originator of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” and an entire genre known as “tribunal plays”). Richard Kent’s gleaming white set is a Union Jack-shaped lattice, an uncluttered yet epic backdrop for Buffini’s dashing tug of war.
What Buffini gives us isn’t merely one queen and prime minister, but two. Beth Hylton is “Liz” and Susan Lynskey is “Mags,” the rulers at the ages they were during the tumultuous 1980s. Older versions squabbling to set the record straight are played by Kate Fahy, reprising her U.K. turn as Thatcher, and Jennifer Mendenhall as the queen.
The title refers to being smacked with a purse, a misogynist way of describing Thatcher’s knockdown style. That’s Buffini’s real subject, and of course Thatcher’s strongman theory of law-and-order patriotism, individual responsibility and a scantly regulated business sector has its echoes now (mostly resonant, occasionally tinny). Lynskey and Fahy are practically feral as Thatcher latches onto the Falklands conflict, drooling for war. She’s a full-throated bully.
If that appalls Liz, Hylton and Mendenhall give shrewdly understated portraits of the queen’s moral disapproval. They’re also spot-on with comic relief, especially when we are reminded how much this queen loves her horses and dogs. Thatcher can be funny, too: recalling the ordeal of a mucky picnic with the outdoorsy queen up at Balmoral, she scoffs, “It was more stressful than a NATO summit.”
Buffini’s breezy script is laced with crosstalk, and it’s booby-trapped with rebellion. Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault play all the necessary men from Thatcher’s husband, Denis, to Ronald Reagan and Neil Kinnock. This means there’s even more arguing over what really mattered in the 1980s — the miners’ strikes? The anti-nuke protests by the women of Greenham Common? Violence from Gerry Adams and the Irish resistance Sinn Fein?
The rallies are lively, and while Hylton (still aglow with privilege from her role as Marie Antoinette in the recent “The Revolutionists”) and the prowling Lynskey are fine as the younger Liz and Mags, Fahy and Mendenhall are particularly crisp. Fahy has the Thatcher voice and bearing — supreme, intellectually intimidating — while Mendenhall has the ginger, subtly rigid style we also see in Claire Foy’s portrait in “The Crown.” Buffini gives this Elizabeth most of the good lines, and Mendenhall nails them with wily timing.
Buffini doesn’t seem to like Thatcher, but she gets how her muscular magnetism attracted followers hungry for a newly great Britain. The script, showcased as part of Washington’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival, has a prismatic quality; the light of history glints differently depending on who’s telling it. Buffini has fun shifting the attention around, and Rubasingham’s production is so sure-footed that the whole show shines.
Handbagged, by Moira Buffini. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Costumes, Richard Kent; lights, Jesse Belsky; sound design, Carolyn Downing. About two hours. Through March 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $36-$65. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.