Theatre review: Dead Sheep at Park Theatre

Steve Nallon in Dead Sheep. Picture: Darren Bell

Steve Nallon in Dead Sheep. Picture: Darren Bell - Credit: Archant

Jonathan Maitland’s script makes for a terrific staging of Thatcher’s political demise, says David Winskill.

Before the curtain rose on Dead Sheep, the audience amused itself with a simple parlour game. An enormous 24’ x 8’ colour photograph of one of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinets was suspended over the stage and we tried to put names to faces. Surprisingly, despite thirty years’ distance, most came to mind (or to haunt).

Like the picture, Jonathan Maitland’s play takes us back to the 1980s, to the beginning of the end for Thatcher, played with an uncanny presence by Steve Nallon.

Geoffrey Howe, subtly interpreted by James Wilby, had been with the Blessed Margaret in her original Shadow Cabinet and went on to occupy two of the great offices – Exchequer and Foreign. How then, did he come to make one of the most remembered speeches in Commons history, brilliantly staged by director Ian Talbot, which led to her demise?

Dead Sheep rehearses his competing emotions of loyalty (to her and the party) and pragmatism (disagreement with her Europhobia), told with wit, precision and selective venom.

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During this intensely enjoyable ninety minutes we meet other part forgotten figures from that era. Ian Gow (Graham Seed) tries to bridge the widening gap between Howe and Thatcher. Lisping Brian Walden of LWT’s Weekend World asks hard questions after Howe has been sacked from the FO; the half pissed Denis and the stately Charles Powell (pronounced Pole) ring-in from off stage.

Tim Wallers has the choicest parts: he is terrific as the priapic Alan Clarke; switching almost seamlessly to Bernard Ingham, then dazzling as Neil Kinnock and mesmerising as John Redwood.

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Maitland asks how far Elspeth Howe, robustly portrayed by Jill Baker, was culpable in the downfall. A strong and focussed woman, she is unquestioningly supportive of her husband, cynical of Thatcher, but is no power behind the throne.

We of a certain generation have come to identify Nallon with Thatcher: familiar on a Sunday night voicing her Spitting Image puppet. But last week his portrayal was not of the Thatcher I remember from that era. Then, she was at the top of her game, ultra confident, energetic and sharp. Steve’s portrait was tired and shallow. It was Thatcher alright. But not because of his delivery: rather because of the sensational Maitland script.

While we were watching, viewers around the UK were tuning into the Seven Leaders’ Debate. How many of the current political crop will merit a play in thirty years?

Rating: 4/5 stars

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