DramaReviewSouth West

Dead Sheep – Exeter Northcott

Writer: Jonathan Maitland
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Anyone even faintly acquainted with the political personalities of the UK during the 1980s will know of the half-man, half-woman Margaret Thatcher; the comic similarities drawn between Heseltine and Tarzan, the references to the Hollywood good looks of Cecil Parkinson, and the arrogance and caddish behaviour of Alan Clarke, but how many might also remember ‘Mogadon Man’, otherwise known as Geoffrey Howe.

tell-us-block_editedPart of Thatcher’s Government team and surrounded by such huge personalities, yet so famously lacking in charisma himself that Dennis Healey once described an attack from Howe was ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’. It is this famous label that lends itself to the title of Jonathan Maitland’s play, the imagined story of private conversations in the inner circles of government centred around Geoffrey Howe’s 16-year political relationship with Margaret Thatcher.

For those of a certain age, this play will bring back many memories, not least of Howe’s famous resignation speech that led to Thatcher’s momentous resignation (at the time the longest serving modern Prime Minister), only a few weeks later in 1990.

Thatcher’s notoriously abrasive and ruthless style of cabinet management was part of what made her so successful, and also part of her downfall. Howe was from a different mould – more inclined to collective responsibility and conciliatory in nature, softly spoken, but with no less strongly held beliefs. He so consistently challenged Thatcher in Cabinet that she increasingly attempted to silence him, firstly bullying him in Cabinet, then contradicting him in press briefings and ultimately, publicly demoting and thus humiliating him.

With a great fondness for many of the key characters and obvious admiration for Howe, Maitland touchingly has Howe dealing with conflicting priorities. His belief in party unity and collective responsibility means he is publicly called on to support government decisions in which he does not believe in and a leader with whom he increasingly disagrees both in style and substance.

A minimal set from Morgan Large, with a long green parliamentary bench across the back, beneath a huge picture of the Cabinet of the time, this simple staging keeps the attention focused exclusively on the conversations between the main characters at major turning points in Howe’s political life.

With just the right balance of bumbling affability and inner integrity, Paul Bradley conveys an extremely likeable Howe caught in the bow wave that follows Thatcher’s relentless drive to push through policies at all costs. Bradley’s Howe quietly reminds his colleagues that ’it is as important to keep your friends as it is to win battles’. The brilliant casting of a Steve Nallon to play Thatcher is a master stroke. Nallan was the perfect voice of Thatcher on Spitting Image, and here he captures Thatcher’s physical mannerisms and the ambiguous sexuality adds to the authoritarian threat of this ruthless political creature.

Elspeth Howe, played by Carole Royale puts up a convincing challenge to Thatcher in this version of events. In contrast to Thatcher certainly more feminine, but an equal to Thatcher intellectually, professionally and domestically (she also is a mother of twins). Yet Thatcher constantly attempts to dismiss her.

The three remaining members of the cast take the role of chorus and other key characters providing much of the humour. Graham Seed provides strong support as Nigel Lawson, Ian Gow, friend of Howe and admirer of Thatcher, and others. John Wark also plays various characters but has a particularly funny part as ‘Bwian’ Walden, the presenter of Weekend World, one of the important political programmes of the time. Christopher Villiers has an immensely funny and very busy evening impersonating among others, Neil Kinnock, Alan Clark and Bernard Ingham – entertaining us with some spot-on, but comically exaggerated, mannerisms

The rapidly moving events provide the momentum of the evening but curiously the play needs more than the continual conversational interplays to give it some variety of interest and pace to keep us gripped in our seats. Director, Ian Talbot’s, split-second phone interplay between the three support characters provides one of these moments successfully and got applause from the audience mid-act.

After the recent years of personality politics, sofa government; policies formed in focus groups and explained in media ‘sound bites’; and the increasing public cynicism towards modern politicians, this play harks back to the pre-Thatcher era of collective cabinet responsibility where policies were developed on the basis of (we hope) judgement and intellect rather than what looks good on TV. Here we see a man prepared to resign rather than carry on in something he doesn’t believe despite the loss of status and power. A different era indeed.

Runs until 5 November 2016 then continues to tour | Image: Darren Bell

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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