There’s no doubt that the mention or memory of Margaret Thatcher has a way of polarizing public opinion.
The opening night audience at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre not only contained a fair few detractors but there was also a healthy “Remain” faction.
What is remarkable, watching Jonathan Maitland’s entertaining political comedy, Dead Sheep, is how ahead of the time Britain’s former Prime Minister was. Post-Brexit her misgivings about joining what was then called the Common Market couldn’t have been more right.
Dead Sheep was Maitland’s debut play, and it studied the love-hate relationship between Thatcher and her greatest ally – and critic – her one time Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe.
More than that it’s a story of a ménage à trois with Howe trapped in an impossibly small jam jar with two fiercely combative wasps – the formidable and intimidating Mrs T and his wife, “Boudicca Mark II” Elspeth.
The title comes from a comment by Denis Healey who said, during a particularly stinging speech: “Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep.” A cruel remark but with an element of truth. Even Howe admitted that he lacked charisma. “I can’t do fire and brimstone. I can’t dazzle.”
But, away from the speech-making he was a brilliant economist and, for most of his career, Maggie’s saviour on more than one occasion. She relied on him utterly – until he no longer agreed with her point of view. Then she “withdrew her love.”
Dead Sheep opened to a landslide victory at the Park Theatre, London, in April last year, with Thatcher’s greatest impersonator, Steve Nallon, reprising his Spitting Image turn as the PM and James Wilby playing the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Geoffrey.
Nallon remains in office for the show’s first UK tour along with Graham Seed and John Wark, who act as narrators and periphery characters. They are joined by Christopher Villiers who does a quite brilliant turn as Alan Clark and Neil Kinnock as well as joining Seed and Wark in scene-setting for the audience.
The impressionist seems to have refined his performance since I first saw it in 2015. The exaggerated make-up, applied with the heavy hand of a drag-artist, is now more subtle, and Nallon’s Maggie appears, if it is possible, less aggressive and more conciliatory.
Perhaps that comes with the experience of acting a character rather than performing a brief skit in a TV satire. He now gives a more nuanced turn which, to some degree, has robbed his Maggie of some of her fire.
The immediate and obvious difference in the touring production is the recasting of both Howe and his wife.
This time around he’s played by a well-built Paul Bradley who bears as much similarity to Howe as I do. In fact, with his ill-fitting suit and habit of trying to peer over his glasses, he reminded me more of ceramics expert John Sandon off the Antiques Roadshow.
Here is a portrayal, by his physicality alone, which renders the former Chancellor, cabinet minister and back bencher a figure of fun and pathos.
There is little chance for the audience to see Howe the QC, the Tory party moderniser, the Solicitor General, the radical Chancellor or the far-sighted minister who was the driving force behind taking the UK into Europe. Here he is little more than a buffoon .
Carol Royle’s Elspeth is well observed but I was distracted by her awful wig which doesn’t do her any favours.
It takes an experienced journalist like Maitland to create a drama out of a political crisis and his dialogue bristles with authenticity. Indeed, it even features Howe’s very resignation speech and a veiled, Corbyn joke (“No man with a beard will ever be the leader of a political party!” the PM declares in a moment of prescience) .
The story starts in 1989 with Howe giving a deadly dull eulogy celebrating the achievements of the Tory leader who was celebrating ten years in power.
“He sucks the life out of a speech,” remarks Villiers in one of his many guises as a minister, before we flash back a decade to how it all began.
Howe was determined to win Britain’s entry into the EEC but his campaign earned little support from Thatcher. Eventually she had enough, describing him as “boring, tedious, little Geoffrey.”
Her condescension extends to Elspeth who she rebukes and attempts to humiliate at every meeting, no doubt fuelled by a perceived threat to her power.
“It’s the eyes,” said Elspeth, reflecting after one bruising. “Have you looked into them? Like an executioner’s.”
Director Ian Talbot is as much an enthusiast for the subject matter as his dramatist. I loved the telephone scene with Howe on one phone, Nigel Lawson on another, Private Secretary Stephen Wall caught in the middle and Villiers, as Maggie’s staffer, dashing to and fro trying to organise a face-to-face meeting with the PM.
Later Villiers, as Minister, diarist and flirt, Alan Clark, and Espeth Howe, slash and parry in a masterly confrontation over Maggie and the feminist issue. It’s as funny as it is inciteful.
John Wark gives a hilarious impression of former TV political pundit and interviewer, Brian Walden, while Graham Seed excels with a hugely sympathetic turn as MP Ian Gow who was later killed by a terrorist bomb.
The first night audience seemed less engaged with the on-stage banter than I had experienced before although they did give hearty applause during one exchange. Maggie told Howe that the ordinary man in the street didn’t want or care about being in the Common Market.
“The people are wrong,” says Geoffrey, defiantly.
Morgan Large’s set features a Commons’ front bench and a huge portrait of Maggie’s tame poodles – the 1979 Cabinet. See how many of them you can recognise. To my eternal shame – bearing in mind this was the third time I’d seen the play – I could still only identify eight. There was, of course, one women sitting at their heart whose name will be forever remembered in history, for good or bad.
Dead Sheep runs on the Royal stage until Saturday.
Remaining tour dates
September 26-October 1,BIRMINGHAM REP
October 3-8, SHREWSBURY SEVERN THEATRE
October 11-15, CARDIFF NEW THEATRE
October 19-22, COVENTRY BELGRADE THEATRE
October 31-November 5, EXETER NORTHCOTT THEATRE
November 8-12, EASTBOURNE DEVONSHIRE PARK
November 14–19, MALVERN FESTIVAL THEATRE
November 21-26, GUILDFORD YVONNE ARNAUD
November 30-December 3, BROMLEY CHURCHILL THEATRE
Steve Nallon reprises his unerringly accurate portrayal of Margaret Thatcher for the UK Tour of Jonathan Maitland’s political comedy, Dead Sheep, with back bench support from top ensemble cast.