Margaret Thatcher can currently be seen on the London stage as an imposing puppet in Billy Elliot, but she’s even more terrifying as she manipulates and bullies her cabinet colleagues to turn them into her own puppets in a taut and absorbing new play, Dead Sheep. This is another behind-the-political front benches drama that seizes on a real-life moment to speculate on what lay behind Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech in the House of Commons in 1990.
Thatcher’s former foreign secretary turned deputy Prime Minister had been a trusted, deeply loyal but uncharismatic chief lieutenant to her – and in the end, she also underestimated the resentment her treatment of him would prove. Dead Sheep is a bracing theatrical re-run, grippingly wrought in its depiction of the price of political loyalty and the cost of its betrayal. Journalist turned debutant playwright Jonathan Maitland is good on establishing his characters, but less secure on jumping around chronologically to set them in context. As a result he has to constantly remind us which year we’re in.
But Ian Talbot’s production achieves its own churning momentum thanks to the detailed performances of a cast led by the quietly decent and dignified James Wilby as Howe and Jill Baker as his loyal wife Elspeth who is unafraid of fighting her own battles as well as his. Steve Nallon’s Thatcher-in-drag gives her an imposing, larger-than-life quality that’s appropriately severe, and there’s also strong support in a variety of roles from Graham Seed, Tim Wallers (a scene-stealing Alan Clark) and John Wark.