Jonathan Maitland’s theatrical debut is a fast-paced, behind-the-political scenes piece, made relevant by current affairs and the upcoming election. The story a well-known one: The political relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe her long-loyal lieutenant, his gradual fall from grace as their politics drifted apart and Thatcher grew more powerful and autocratic, leading to his pivotal resignation speech made on 13 November 1990, which precipitated her resignation.
In contrast to earlier productions on Thatcher and her era Dead Sheep does not put Thatcher on centre stage, but focuses instead on Geoffrey Howe. His politics, ethos, marriage to Elsbeth and his final ambivalence, before committing political murder; regicide as it has been often called. Both Thatcher and Elsbeth Howe have secondary roles, but both their presences and influence are catalytic throughout.
The play darts back and forth between key dates – from Chancellor Howe’s great triumph with the 1981 budget to the 1989 Madrid Summit, which revealed the fault-lines beneath Howe and his Prime Minister over the ERM, his demotion and finally leads up to his resignation. All these times the “electorate is kept informed” through the energetic efforts of Graham Seed, Tim Wallers and John Wark, who inhabit the peripheral roles of narrators, MPs, journalists and politicos. A great aid for those younger or unfamiliar with the politics of the time, but which creates a bit of a chaotic effect.
Maitland’s text has its highlights. Thatcher telling her husband that she has arranged for his earplugs to be washed; Howe appearing with a knitted jumper with a picture of Cheveney (his grace and favour home); the waspish back-and-forths between Thatcher and Elsbeth Howe – “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people”, to which Elspeth retorts “Imagine what you might have achieved if you had been…” ; the vitriolic comments between Party grandees.
But despite Maitland’s professed intention to bring Howe to the foreground and do justice to his role as politician and man, his text does not delve deeply in the character, nor does it offer unique insight, it remains rather undeveloped. The more enjoyable or memorable scenes usually include the other characters. Even at the final scene it’s Thatcher that gets the final word.
The excellent performances sustain the production. James Wilby’s dignified, downtrodden and conflicted Howe; Jill Baker’s spirited and loyal Elsbeth; Tim Waller’s scene-stealing Alan Clark; and of course Steve Nallon who conveyed masterfully Thatcher’s gimlet eye and intractable personality.
A quick-witted and enjoyable comedy, which nevertheless did not rock the boat of dramatized politics.