Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Anyone who remembers the satirical Spitting Image TV show will love Dead Sheep, Alan Maitland’s new play about the public clash between Margaret Thatcher and her Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1990. In this tragi-comedy about the end of Thatcher’s dominance in British politics, the Iron Lady herself is played memorably by Steve Nallon, the voice of Thatcher in the show.
Taller and more threatening than any of her colleagues in her all-male cabinet, Nallon’s charismatic figure looms above Paul Bradley as Geoffrey Howe. This mild-mannered man had been Thatcher’s devoted supporter for eighteen years. Denis Healey had famouly compared Howe’s performance in the House of Commons as “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” But, pushed too far, Howe showed that where his strongly-felt political opinions on the UK’s membership of Europe were concerned, he could speak out like “the mouse that roared”, in a resignation speech that took everyone by surprise with its forthright condemnation of his leader’s attitudes.
Excellently constructed using a trio of narrators and vignettes of incidents from the months that led up to Howe’s stand, this is about a man answerable to two strong women: his leader, Margaret Thatcher and his wife, Elspeth, between whom sparks fly.
Elspeth is sympathetically played by Carol Royle. Incensed by Thatcher’s sacking from the post of Foreign Secretary in 1988, and a sequence of public humiliations of her husband, she encourages him to express his own political ideals. Paul Bradley’s portrayal of a man caught like a rabbit in the headlights of these two strong women is both tragic and very funny.
Graham Seed, Christopher Villiers and John Wark are narrators, chorus and the politicians and journalists who watch and comment on the sidelines, and there are some great comic performances from them. The very funny scene when Howe is trying to arrange an appointment to see the PM through telephone calls to their respective staff is handled with tremendous panache and skilled stagecraft. Christopher Villiers’ portrait of Alan Clark is wonderfully venal and leads to hilarious scenes when Elspeth has to deal with his flirtatious advances.
Satirical, but based on historical fact, Dead Sheep treats themes of political morality, revenge, loyalty and betrayal with a light but incisive touch. Its other topics, of political morality and “Britishness”, resonate twenty-six years after Geoffrey Howe’s political and personal stand, as relevant today as they have ever been. A great evening of comedy with an edge.
Janice Windle 21/11/2016