Writer: Jonathan Maitland
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: James Garrington
Every leader – political or otherwise – should be afraid of their Geoffrey.
The Geoffrey in question is Geoffrey Howe, one time Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, and staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher. Never a political firebrand, and an uneasy speaker, he was a politician who lacked the charisma ever to catch the eye of the public – in fact, Denis Healey had famously said that a political attack by Howe was like “being savaged by a dead sheep.” Until, that is, the day that his loyalty was pushed too far and, speaking to a silent House of Commons, he delivered a killer blow that effectively brought Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.
Dead Sheep portrays the story of the Thatcher era and her relationship with Howe – and it does it in an extremely amusing way, falling somewhere between satire and comedy. It uses imagined dialogue to portray private scenes between the main protagonists to show the relationships as they start to crumble and cracks appear, as they disagree over – of all things – our relationship with Europe. Jonathan Maitland’s play is rather Yes, Minister and The Thick of It in style, and the combination of Maitland’s script, director Ian Talbot’s attention to detail and some extremely well-observed characterisation from the cast makes this a wickedly funny piece of theatre.
Steve Nallon gives a flawless performance as Margaret Thatcher. Nallon provided the voice for Thatcher in Spitting Image, but this is no caricature. His voice skills are extraordinary, and his mannerisms brilliantly well-observed. The angle of the head, the walk, the withering stare: Nallon is the Margaret Thatcher that we remember. Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay is to say that after a relatively short time, you forget you are watching a man – in fact, you could almost forget that it’s not actually the lady herself on the stage, so in touch is he with his character.
Paul BradleyisGeoffreyHowe,Thatcher’s one-time friend and political soul-mate. Like Nallon, Bradley has clearly invested a great deal of time in observing his subject and has managed to capture the mannerisms well. His transition from Thatcher supporter to assassin is nicely portrayed, and we see his inner turmoil as he addresses the conflict between loyalty to his leader and his party, and his conviction about what is right for the country – along with his private anguish at the way he has been treated by someone he thought a good friend.
The pair has good support from the rest of the small cast. Carol Royle’sElspeth Howe is intelligent and unimpressed by Thatcher’s status and reputation, happy to trade cutting remarks with her with a forthright honesty. Graham Seed, Christopher Villiers and John Wark play the rest of the characters between them, each with some memorable moments. Seed is a touching Ian Gow, a man with his own conflicts similar to Howe’s, and Villiers’ portrayal of both Bernard Ingham and, particularly, Alan Clark fall just enough short of caricature to make them very funny. The comedy moment of the night, though, must go Wark whose Brian Walden is guaranteed to bring the house down.
On a simple set (courtesy of Morgan Large) which believably represents the House of Commons and several different interiors, the whole play is slick and funny from end to end – though it feels a little rushed towards the end, with an odd jump in time where it seems there should be a little more to fill in the sequence. Although it will perhaps be appreciated more by those who are familiar with the Thatcher era, it has a lot of relevance today and can be enjoyed by everyone. Superb.
Runs until 24 September 2016 and on tour | Image: Contributed