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Dead Sheep

Jonathan Maitland
Cahoots Theatre Company
Park Theatre

Graham Seed as Nigel Lawson, James Wilby as Geoffrey Howe, Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher, Tim Wallers as Bernard Ingham and John Wark as Stephen Wall Credit: Darren Bell

Sir Geoffrey Howe, now Baron Howe of Aberavon, was Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving Cabinet minister and before that Chancellor of the Exchequer in her Shadow Cabinet.

In 1978, Denis Healey, Labour Chancellor on the opposite benches, described an attack from him as "like being savaged by a dead sheep"—but it was this dead sheep whose 1990 House of Commons resignation speech was instrumental in bringing about Thatcher’s downfall.

Maitland’s play is a behind-the-scenes political drama, but it is about politicians rather than political issues, and about political marriages. On the one hand there is marriage to the Party, loyalty and allegiances; on the other family marriage. The play gives only a brief glimpse of Margaret and Denis Thatcher but that of Geoffrey Howe to Elspeth (since 1953) is a significant part of this story.

For political pundits, the relationships in the Iron Lady’s Cabinet may be common knowledge but they aren’t to a great many of us and there’s always an extra frisson about being behind in the back rooms of politics.

The action moves backwards and forwards between 1990 and 1985. Many memories won’t go back that far but the cast act as their own chorus identifying dates and the relevant roles they are playing. Even the political virgin should find this easy to follow—and they will also find many similarities between issues being raised in the election campaign which has now begun and those of 25 years ago.

James Wilby’s Howe is a man of integrity and one, unlike some of his colleagues, to whom loyalty is very important. This makes him a bit of a pushover when facing Steve Nallon’s gimlet-eyed Thatcher, coldly polite in her insistence on toeing her line.

She’s played by a man, but this is no drag act, Nallon has plenty of experience in the character (including being her voice for Spitting Image) and gets her just right. His masculine bulk and heavier gait just gives him larger life than those around her.

Every turn of the head seems right but, though the hair is coiffed perfectly, her hound’s-tooth suit just isn’t smart enough—not like that blue outfit in a Cabinet group portrait below which the audience sits on a green Commons front bench.

For just a moment, Thatcher relaxes; in private she slips her shoes off and Howe is also seen chatting to Elspeth while trouserless. That serves to emphasise that these are people, not just politicos, and that this is a play about personalities.

Tim Wallers is a heard but not seen Denis Thatcher, the butt for some humour, and as press secretary Bernard Ingham he’s almost cartoonly comic, then absolutely hilarious as cleverly caustic Alan Clark but, however funny, these don’t feel like caricature but men seen as their colleagues find them.

It is clear that Thatcher and Elspeth Howe couldn’t stand each other. Jill Baker’s supportive Elspeth is a picture of gentleness compared with the PM but a firm liberal-viewed feminist who can tell an abusive Clark who still expects to be fed, “I am so sorry you can’t stay to dinner!” When, chided by her for lack of compassion, Thatcher declares, “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people.” Elspeth ripostes, “imagine what you might have achieved if you had been…”

Graham Seed plays Nigel Lawson and Ian Gow, friend of the Howe’s but devoted to Thatcher, who acts as a bridge between them after Thatcher demotes Howe, raising questions about what might have been different if he had not been killed by the Brighton hotel bombing, and John Wark plays Howe's staff man Stephen Wall and as Brian Walden conducts a critical TV interview with Howe.

Director Ian Talbot gets sparkling performances from all of them and keeps what is going on clear in a production that moves quickly and easily between times and locations—so smoothly that at one point both Maggie T and Elspeth H, each in their own home, share the same table.

In a piece last week in The Telegraph, dramatist Jonathan Maitland said that at a time when all political plays seem to be left-wing, Dead Sheep was his attempt to “redress the balance” and offer a counter-argument exploring “why people loved her (Thatcher) so much and held her in such high regard”.

He failed to convince me, but did just the opposite. His play was a reminder of why so many hated and indeed still hate her—but it is very funny. It is full of clever lines, whether his or coined by the real politicians. When John Major was replaced Howe as Foreign Secretary, did the patricians among them actually say, “but he doesn’t even go abroad for his holidays”?

It makes a very entertaining night at the theatre out of which it is Howe who emerges with honour.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton