A touring revival of Park Theatre’s 2015 production is a story that resonates as deeply with Britain’s current affairs.
Dead Sheep is the story of one of British politics most tumultuous pairings; Margaret Thatcher (PM) and her Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, a man seen as so weak that Denis Healey once described debating with him as “like being savaged by a dead sheep”.
Jonathan Maitland (a journalist by trade who is now a successful playwright) has an eye for a fascinating story but as the characters keep saying the House of Commons is a theatre in itself and the circumstances behind Howe’s ultimately damning speech (Thatcher resigned three weeks later) is interesting but doesn’t have the impact watching the speech has. It is a beautiful piece of drama and this production doesn’t quite match up.
With strong performances by Paul Bradley (Eastenders, Holby City) as Howe, Carol Royle as Elspeth Howe and Spitting Images’ Steve Nallon as Thatcher it is let down by the other members of the cast; who attempt to play multiple characters but it just doesn’t work and this simply isn’t as skilled or as interesting as The National Theatre’s This House, which has been revived at the Garrick. It isn’t that the performances by Graham Seed, Christopher Villiers and John Wark are bad performers but the characters they have been given provide little drama, even Seed’s Ian Gow’s impact is so minimal that it ruins a crucial scene, there was also some bizarre casting as the black, curly-haired Wark never played Nigel Lawson! I did enjoy Villiers as Alan Clark as he got his sleazy, sycophancy down to a tea. It was constantly suggested that Thatcher didn’t give women a leg up in her cabinet but it is very clear Thatcher not only surrounded herself with men but weak men during her reign.
Ultimately this is a story about battles; the scenes were Elspeth and Margaret have it out are key to this play’s interest and makes Howe’s speech seem even more incredible. I also enjoyed the references to Europe. In a year that saw the EU bring down David Cameron the issues surrounding Thatcher’s demise were not that dissimilar.
Royle is the standout performer as Elspeth but Paul Bradley gets Howe’s nervous energy and controlled fury and intelligence down. It is great to see Nallon as Thatcher, but as a production it is never quite as interesting as the real story.