A few days after Geoffrey Howe’s momentous resignation speech I happened to be sitting a few seats away from him at another political assassination. As events progressed inexorably toward their bloody conclusion, attention drifted from the stage to the politician in the front stalls, and all awaited the tyrant’s dying words.
“Et tu, Brute,” Caesar gasped. And we watched as Sir Geoffrey’s companions in the RSC audience at Stratford suppressed smiles, while the dead sheep himself remained humbly dead-pan.
Leap to today, and in Jonathan Maitland’s funny, acerbic, sympathetic dramatization, here is Paul Bradley’s Howe, fearful about speaking his mind after years of humiliation by Mrs Thatcher: “I would be remembered as Brutus.”
It was Denis Healey who had coined the ovine metaphor, but if the target of his ridicule lacked incisors, he proved the value of molars, grinding down the Prime Minister’s reputation as he spoke for once – as Parliamentary tradition demands – without interruption. Within three weeks she was gone.
Dead Sheep is also the story of two marriages, of conflicted loyalty between Howe and Thatcher, and of unconflicted devotion between Howe and his wife. Sensitively played by Carol Royle, Elspeth is a left-leaning campaigner for women’s rights, or as Christopher Villiers as a loathsome, foul-mouthed Alan Clark puts it, “a posh pinko for lesbos.”
“Be a bit more Eeyore, a bit less Tigger,” Graham Seed’s likeable Ian Gow urges Howe. After 16 years of submission and snubs, the former Foreign Secretary can no longer comply, and displays as great a nobility in the betrayal as in the loyalty that went before.
For all the distrust that politicians provoke among some voters, Maitland’s play argues, there is also much to admire.
John Wark is an immediately recognisable, reptilian Brian Walden, gleefully pressing Howe on Weekend World about “pwoblems in cabinet” and his demotion to Leader of the House, one minute dealing with Delors, the next with ladies’ hairdressing in the Commons.
But dominating the show is the wonderful Steve Nallon as Mrs T. The intonation, the stare, the silences as terrifying as the insults, are the image, maybe the Spitting Image, of the real thing. Nallon, with his broad shoulders, has only to make the slightest move to resemble a 44-tonne lorry forced to make a 3-point turn in an alley.
This was not a lady for turning. Until the dead sheep bared its teeth. ★★★★☆ Colin Davison 15th November 2016