“What are you seeing tonight?” my flatmate said, “a play about Margaret Thatcher”, “well that should be a barrel of laughs,” he said with all the sarcasm he could muster. How wrong we were on every level. First of all, it absolutely was a barrel of laughs and second of all it wasn’t a play about Margaret Thatcher at all, but rather her chief confidant, turned orchestrator of her downfall, Geoffrey Howe (James Wilby), timed perfectly in the run up to our general election and laid thick with contemporary references to keep us on our toes. The concern, for me, was how were they going to pump the historical and over-told tales of Thatcher’s reign with new life, making it worthy of being told again how ever differently. Taking my own brain as a target market, it was quite a hefty task. Firstly, Thatcher, the legend herself, was to be played by a man named Steve (Nallon). I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I am constantly grappling with the current political climate, attempting to understand my ideology and with whom to pledge allegiance, so how would I fair when faced with politics of old? I’m part of a post-Thatcher generation: the Iron Lady has been dipped in Marmite and subjected to dinner party debates, anecdotes and a figurehead for class divides. My knowledge of her is merely overheard from differing voices. I’ve heard it all, but experienced none of it, not sure of what to believe or whether to care. What could writer Jonathan Maitland possibly do to make me care?
I cared solely for Howe as piece by piece, the foundations of his relationship with Thatcher and his wife Elspeth (Jill Baker) were explored. His iconic budgets aside, Howe’s always been seen as somewhat of a wet lettuce sandwiched between the two strong, yet opposing, women in his life. Wilby’s Howe is soft but principled, unwaveringly loyal, smart, handsome and completely devoted to his wife. Altogether extremely likeable, not pitiable, just likeable.
The narrative pivots around Howe’s ultimate resignation speech that disarmed Thatcher in front of the nation, marking the beginning of the end. It marks how their relationship contorted itself towards this inevitable demise and questions whether the speech itself was penned by Elspeth, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, as opposed to the previously ‘wouldn’t say boo to a goose’ Howe. Baker’s Lady Howe, is strong but completely controlled. She is as devoted to her husband as she is to her feminist principles and ideologies. She is headstrong and driven but with balance and a high level of assuredness attributed to how she thinks and acts.
As for the infamous Iron Lady, I had visions of the gender cross coming across as farcical, yet entertaining, drag. Quite the contrary, Nallon’s portrayal of Thatcher is as intricate and well-researched as it gets. His physique adds to her intrinsic level of power, without the necessity for over-played feminism. Everything from her voice, down to her walk was sculpted and completely humanised by Nallon.
As well as plenty of chuckles and intrigue, I came away from Dead Sheep with a different view on the politics of our generation and where I might fit into that.
Dead Sheep is playing at Park Theatre until 9 May. For tickets and more information, see the Park Theatre website. Photo by Darren Bell.