For more than 30 years the go-to guy for a Margaret Thatcher impersonator has been Steve Nallon. In wig and make-up he played the Iron Lady in a series of television shows and provided the voice for the PM’s Spitting Image puppet.
Nallon has outlived his most successful creation but that hasn’t stopped him ressurrecting her when required.
She was brought scarily back to life this week when she strode forcefully onto the stage of London’s Park Theatre, her “executioner’s eyes” never looking more sharp or her blue suit and handbag more iconic.
Dead Sheep, a scintillating debut play from TV broadcaster and journo Jonathan Maitland, is one drama ewe must see (sorry, that’s it. Just the one sheep joke in the review).
The opening night audience enjoyed playing a little game before the comedy started by trying to identify the members of Maggie’s 1987 cabinet who appear in a giant team photo on the wall above the stage. I barely managed half. How soon we forget.
“Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a Dead Sheep,” so said Denis Healey which is where the play’s title comes from.
I have to admit that I’ve always considered Howe to be one of Maggie’s archetypal “men in grey suits,” her tame poodles that sat in an exclusively white, male cabinet and agreed to her every demand.
So Maitland’s play is a bit of an eye-opener. All right, Howe may not have been the most charismatic of politicans but he had more backbone than I’d given him credit for.
Dead Sheep flits around through the ’80s from elections, to cabinet meetings, to crisis talks, to tête-à-têtes with the PM.
Geoffrey Howe was one of Thatcher’s most loyal supporters. In the early days she consistently credited him for her success.
But as the years went by there was division in the ranks, particularly over Europe.
Mrs T was used to getting her own way. “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people,” she declared.
She had a very poor view of working women and was the only woman in cabinet. Her run-ins with Geoffrey’s wife, the formidable Elspeth Howe, were incendiary.
Maggie was supremely condescending and prone to giving withering looks while Elspeth, cut from the same cloth as the PM, looked her squarely in the eyes and refused to be bowed.
Finally, Thatcher had enough of being contradicted by the Howes. “The trouble is Geoffrey thinks he is far more important than he is.” She snipes. Then: “Time to withdraw our love” and, with startling speed, Geoffrey was in the political wilderness. His only option was resignation.
Nallon, of course, nails it vocally as the PM although his fixed expression was a little disconcerting. There were times when he looked less like Mrs Thatcher and more a hybrid spawn of Corrie’s Emily Bishop and the theatre world’s man of mystery, the West End Producer.
But the performance is enhanced by a cracking cast. You wouldn’t automatically think of James Wilby as Howe but the square-rimmed glasses and haircut worked wonders. He gave us a man of honesty and integrity who readily admitted to his wife: “I can’t do fire and brimstone. I can’t dazzle”.
Jill Baker’s turn as the steely Elspeth is quite brilliant. Not only does Lady Howe stand up to her husband’s boss but there’s a delicious duel of words with flamboyant MP Alan Clark.
Graham Seed, Tim Wallers and John Wark play a variety of characters including narrators, commentators, MPs Clark, Ian Gow and Nigel Lawson, as well as Maggie’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, Denis Thatcher and a collection of journos.
In one scene Thatcher is taking PMQ in the House and the theatre’s stage has House Of Commons front benches either side. The terrifying Prime Minister is sitting one side while MPs John Redwood and Neil Kinnock fire off questions.
Sitting on the back benches, on opening night, was Alistair McGowan, and I half expected him to jump up and give his impressions of the politicians.
A lot has been said, acted and written about the Thatcher years but Dead Sheep is by far the most entertaining. The now Baron Howe of Aberavon should take a look. A triumph.