Interview: Handbagged’s Marion Bailey & Fenella Woolgar

Marion Bailey and Fenella Woolgar are currently starring as the older Queen and younger Margaret Thatcher in the West End transfer of Handbagged. Following its sell-out run at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, Indhu Rubasingham’s production of Moira Buffini’s new play runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 2nd August 2014.

The Queen and Margaret Thatcher were born six months apart, with one destined to rule and the other elected to lead. However, what did the world's most powerful women talk about behind closed doors during their weekly meetings at the palace? Handbagged has been taking the West End by storm, recently winning a 2014 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre.

As well as having worked extensively on screen, just a few of Marion Bailey’s recent stage credits include Blurred Lines & Grief (National Theatre), Kind of Alaska (Bristol Old Vic) and Cloud Nine (Old Vic). Fenella Woolgar’s stage credits include: Hedda Gabler & The Real Thing (Old Vic) and The Veil, Time and the Conways (National Theatre).

I recently visited Marion and Fenella backstage at the Vaudeville to discuss the huge success of Handbagged

Handbagged’s run at the Tricycle was so successful; did you need any persuading to reprise your performances for the West End transfer?

Fenella Woolgar: I have three small children so not being able to put them to bed for four months is a big deal, it’s tough! But there were quite a few re-writes which have kept the piece alive and we have such a great company, including Lucy Robinson who has joined as the young Queen. We all just really get on!

Marion Bailey: …and we’re in such a nice theatre! I’m really enjoying myself!

FW: I really enjoy putting a play to bed for a few months and then coming back to it. The challenge is to play your character every night, do eight shows a week and keep it fresh. When we finished at the Tricycle we knew it was coming back so I just put it at the back of my head entirely. Coming back there was enough new writing to keep us on our toes!

MB: It’s a little bit shorter now which is always a good thing! I think the rewrites give it extra zing.

Winning the Olivier must have given the play an extra buzz?

MB: It was very exciting and the buzz was huge! After our first performance back we all had our photo taken after the show, it was lovely!

FW: It’s funny winning an award because then you have to live up to it, you don’t want to disappoint people!

MB: Yes, sometimes you worry that it makes the audience expectations too high, but of course they couldn’t be high enough for this show [laughs]! The audiences seem to love this show. It’s also a nice award because Handbagged is an ensemble piece, and the award was for all of us – everyone involved!

There has been so much excitement surrounding Handbagged and huge praise for the production. Are you able to put your finger on what makes it so special?

MB: It’s unlike anything else in terms of its style.

FW: Well it’s perfect for the Vaudeville Theatre as it is very Vaudevillian! I think Moira (Buffini) has crafted it so well. There’s comedy, then there are serious bits and then there’s more comedy – it interweaves beautifully!

MB: Some of it is quite moving and tender, especially at the end.

I think it works because it allows the audience to make their own minds up, but it also keep them on their toes!

FW: Yes, that’s another reason why it certainly appeals to people of all different opinions, politically and otherwise. In a way you want the audience to be like the House Of Commons…

MB: …and some nights we get that! Sometimes I think we might end up with a bust-up in the auditorium [laughs]!

FW: Marion’s not thinking, she’s secretly hoping [both laugh]!

Not only are you both playing a real person, but you are both playing a real person that every single member of the audience has an opinion about. Going back to the very beginning of the process, how did you initially prepare?

FW: There’s so much out there – you just have to do a quick search on YouTube and there are vast amounts of stuff! There are fantastic books and documentaries, I just felt as if I had to dive on in there! When you’re playing somebody everyone has a strong opinion about you’ve just got to go out there with full armour as that person. There’s a delicate balance between truth and comedic licence. If there was one percent of myself commenting on Margaret Thatcher it wouldn’t work, I have to go out in full character. Let’s face it, she went out there and didn’t care whether people loved or hated her!

MB: I’ve noticed that you see a picture of the Queen at least once a day, so she was deeply embedded already. I watched as much footage as I could find and tried to treat her as if I would treat any other character I’ve played.

What’s the atmosphere like here backstage?

FW: It’s really good!

MB:  I feel really lucky as I come out of the tube every day. When I’m walking to the stage door I think “this is the life!”

FW: We need to plan some more treats for us as a cast, the odd little restaurant trip!

Marion, what really got me was when you ran on and off stage during the bows – I couldn’t believe I was watching the Queen running! Do you get that reaction a lot?

[both laugh] MB:  I can always feel the audience being slightly discombobulated by that!

FW: How dare the Queen run!

MB:  We don’t want her to run; we want her to walk on and off!

FW: I sometimes feel like that before the show, it feels so wrong watching the Queen doing a warm up!

MB:  I often forget what I look like and then look down at my reflection on the floor under the lights and get a fright – “there’s the Queen!”

Have you been able to give any members of the public a fright?!

MB: Well at the beginning of the second act Lucy and I enter through the back of the auditorium. To get there we have to go out through the stage door, outside, down the alleyway and in through the front of the theatre - there’s no other way. So out we go and a few times members of the public have had double takes – we’re wearing our wigs and of course it’s dark. Afterwards the stage manager has been asked, “Was that then Queen?” [laughs], I think it’s the funniest thing!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins
Handbagged runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 2nd August 2014.


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