Writer: Jonathan Maitland
Director: Ian Talbot
Designer: Morgan Large
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The outward and visible signs are that Dead Sheep is a satire: the title based on Denis Healey’s famous gibe, the presence in the cast of Steve Nallon, once Spitting Image’s outrageously accurate Mrs. Thatcher, even the “Very Funny” press comment in the publicity material. But it is something quite different. Nor, is there much sign of the tragedy the leaflet finds co-existing with comedy.
In fact, it is the story, told quite soberly, if with effective use of irony and the comedy of caricature, of the lead-up to one of the most dramatic Commons moments of the late 20th century: Sir Geoffrey Howe’s 1990 resignation speech. Margaret Thatcher’s Government was the most revered and the most hated in living memory. Geoffrey Howe was the human face of Thatcherism, the ultimate loyalist, capable in key offices of state without ever seeking the limelight, so mild that Healey compared an attack by him to “being savaged by a dead sheep.” His reward for this was to be removed from the Foreign Office because of his opposition to Thatcher over the European exchange rate mechanism – strange how topical this seems! Finally, he told the truth in the Commons about Thatcher’s negative effect on her own ministers – and soon after that, she was driving away from Downing Street for the last time.
Jonathan Maitland begins his play with a clever device, Sir Geoffrey delivering a rather forced paean of praise to Mrs. Thatcher. The play runs through the history of the Thatcher years as reflected in the comradeship between Thatcher and Howe souringas she feels the increased power of being an election-winner. The theme of Elspeth Howe’s radical power behind the throne is teased out throughout the play: neither Maitlandnor Carol Royle in an intelligent performanceseems quite convinced that she is Lady Macbeth.
Moderation is in fact, the keynote of all three central performances. Paul Bradley’s Howe is the embodiment of nice until he delivers his killer speech, still intones of mild rebuke. Steve Nallon’s mastery of the Thatcher voice is well known. To that add the dead eye look of incomprehension (of a joke usually) or dismissal, but the Iron Lady herself would not have found much to complain of in his poised performance which occasionally hints towards sympathy before deciding the Lady is for turning.
The most entertaining feature of an enjoyable evening is the deployment of the three chorus members of the cast. Ian Talbot’s production has its liveliest set piece when all three join with Bradley in a pass-the-parcel phone interlude when Howe and Nigel Lawson are trying to set up a meeting with Mrs. Thatcher – who doesn’t want to know. They provide a commentary and play several smaller parts each, often with the edge of caricature missing elsewhere. Graham Seed has a convincing all-through role as Ian Gow, an urbane hotbed of conflicting loyalties until, sadly, an IRA bomb ends it all. Christopher Villiers has huge fun with Bernard Ingham, all Yorkshire bluffness, and Alan Clark, all foul language and the confidence of ignorance. John Wark’s private secretary is straight out of Yes, Minister and he delivers an uncanny reprise of Brian Walden’s lisp. All three are excellent.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed