Dead Sheep

Theatre, Fringe
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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This new political drama about Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher fails to bring down the house.

Once a familiar counterpart to Anne Robinson on the BBC’s ‘Watchdog’, jobbing presenter Jonathan Maitland has made a decent, if predictable, theatre debut with a play that tries to get under the skin of Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher’s unassuming assassin. The mouse that roared, the dead sheep with the wolf’s bite, Howe is followed here from his early success as the mastermind of the brutal 1981 budget, to the resignation speech that would finally tear the Iron Lady down.

Bland and reserved, Howe is a fairly unappealing subject, so Maitland has made him the man in the middle, trapped between the imposing figures of his political partner in crime Thatcher and his actual wife Elspeth, whose views on equal rights for women are doomed to clash with the PM’s ladder-pulling policies.

Director Ian Talbot has scored a coup by recruiting professional Thatcher-impersonator and ‘Spitting Image’ star Steve Nallon to take up the handbag, and his performance is a gruesome joy – a vision of vulgar evil, incapable of reflection or evolution, doomed to die in battle. But there’s also strong and subtle work from James Wilby as the quietly tormented Howe, and Jill Baker as the no-nonsense Elspeth.

The problem is that in these post-‘The Thick of It’ times, everything here feels terribly staid and dated. The rest of the cast fill in the other roles, gamely plugging away at grotesques of Alan Clark or Neil Kinnock, but beyond a vague chuckle of recognition, it’s thin and unenlightening stuff, and they’re consistently thrown into the shade by Nallon’s bruising portrait. There are more groans than guffaws in Maitland’s script, and while that makes for some cosy fun early doors, its welcome wears thin long before Thatcher’s.

Clunky and fussy, but set off with a few comic gems and two superb central performances, ‘Dead Sheep’ isn’t quite as woolly and toothless as its title suggests, but it fails to bring down the house.

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