Dead Sheep is at http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/ until Saturday 1 October 2016 and continues to tour the UK afterwards, tour dates and more information can be found here: http://www.deadsheepontour.co.uk/
Star rating: ****
A political play based around the Conservative party didn’t necessarily sound like my glass of Drambuie. However, with a stellar line-up which included Paul Bradley, Carol Royle, Graham Seed and Steve Nallon in the cast, amongst others was a more inviting prospect. The thought of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher being played by a man sounded somewhat akin to Pantomime Dame, but I didn’t bank on the brilliance of Steve Nallon who is known for providing the voice of the late Baroness Thatcher. Therefore, this production came as a pleasant and indeed powerful surprise to me.
The story focuses on the relationship between Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe (Paul Bradley), Foreign Secretary, the influence of his wife Elspeth (Carol Royle) and the events which ultimately led to Howe’s resignation from the government. Jonathan Maitland who wrote the piece decided on the title Dead Sheep following a statement made by Denis Healey “being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep”. Howe’s charisma, or lack there of is certainly put under scrutiny as he blends in benignly and serves Thatcher obediently until they lock horns on the subject of Europe. His fate is sealed, as a change in the cabinet is instigated by the Prime Minister and Howe is relegated to Deputy Prime Minister. His wife, Elspeth remains at his side, her own principles unwavering as she campaigns for rights for women and the homeless. In fact, the play explores the relationship between Margaret and Elspeth, from their hand shake which the latter would not be ‘moved’ by, to Mrs Thatcher’s enquiries about her welfare, through clenched teeth, during interactions with Geoffrey.
The cast are a delightful combined force, this is an ensemble piece, regardless of the dominance of The Prime Minister who could not have been played by anyone better than Nallon. His portrayal of her is quite disconcerting in the nicest possible way, from the steely glare to the familiar gait, plus the voice is perfectly mimicked. Paul Bradley is a fantastic choice for the role of Geoffrey, he has the ability to adapt the character depending on the scenario and seemed a natural in the role. Carol Royle was wonderfully dominant and supportive as Elspeth, she and Bradley formed a formidable duo and her interactions with Nallon were a work of art. One of Royle’s strengths is conveying so much without saying a word. Christopher Villiers took on a range of characters, including Bernard Ingham, who he particularly delighted the audience with his portrayal of. Graham Seed played each of his many roles brilliantly, he moved seamlessly between Ian Gow, Nigel Lawson and Minister 3 and at no point did I question which one he was. John Wark was similarly able and his performance as Brian Walden was a real highlight.
Ian Talbot OBE has directed an important piece of theatre, innovatively and creatively. The set design is quite something, too, it envelopes the piece and although it’s a fairly static backdrop, it lends itself to the various scenes.
There is a good deal of humour injected into the play, all of the cast have comic timing which matches the pace of the script. Despite the casting of a Spitting Image impersonator in an iconic role, the character is not exaggerated, and at no point did I consider that this was a man playing a woman, either. It’s worth noting that although It’s set in the 80’s, the topics raised are as current today as they were back then and that is one of the many strengths that Dead Sheep has to offer.