Wasn’t that one of the world’s best ever insults? Forget your Shakespearean cream faced loon and lily-liver’d boy; when Denis Healey described debating with Sir Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons as like “being savaged by a dead sheep”, it said so much about the nature of both men. But the most glorious aspect to that slur, which had been cast even before Howe had joined Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, was the way he turned it around to deliver possibly the most damning resignation speech the Commons has ever witnessed.
Ah, the 1970s and 1980s. Don’t they seem like innocent days in retrospect? Actually, no. Three day weeks, power cuts, the miners’ strike, Falklands War, and the close possibility of someone pressing that nuclear button meant these were times of tension. We all had a thoroughly miserable time apart from in music and fashion. We have political tension today too, led by ineptitude. But no matter your politics, you could never say that Thatcher was inept. Au contraire, she must have been one of the most ept people ever to have existed. Everything she did, she meant. Nothing she did created an accidental effect – it was all deliberate. And that is shown most beautifully in Jonathan Maitland’s play about the relationship between Thatcher and Howe – its rise and fall, her exquisite powerplay, his ultimate revenge.
If you were an adult during the 1980s, this play is a true nostalgia trip. As you enter the auditorium, the stage curtains are open to reveal a huge photograph of the Thatcher cabinet, and whilst you’re waiting for the play to begin, it’s impossible not to go through all the faces and tick off the ones you recognise and remember. It’s a really clever ruse to get you into the 80s mindset. I got just over half of them right. The second act opens with Brian Walden (a devilish impersonation by John Wark that brings the house down) interviewing Geoffrey Howe on Weekend World (Sundays at noon on LWT) and my toes curled with delight at the memories of watching that programme, mainly so that I could really lose myself in its theme music, Nantucket Sleighride. I confess, my air guitar did briefly come out in the stalls last night.
Given the play’s title, and the fact that it stars Steve Nallon, you might be fooled into thinking this is simply a riotous comedy. That’s far from the truth. Certainly, there’s a lot to laugh at in this play, and it’s distinguished by some fine performances. One of the funniest scenes, which gets its own round of applause, plays out the ludicrous telephone requests between Howe and Lawson to get Thatcher to agree to a meeting before the Madrid summit – performed by the male characters in the cast with a terrific sense of ensemble and at a cracking pace. But what particularly grabbed me about the play was how strongly it conveyed a rather claustrophobic sense of political intrigue – of plotting and revenge; of pitting a cynical, manipulative brain against a rather simple, honest one. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also wondered if the play had been revised at all for a post-Brexit audience, as there are a number of rather ironic lines about membership of the European Community which raise some embarrassed titters; plus the nice observation that not even the Labour Party would think of electing a leader with a beard.
Jonathan Maitland is obviously extremely at home with writing about real people at the centre of controversy. Just like his brilliant Audience with Jimmy Savile (which also premiered at the Park Theatre, and which also featured Graham Seed in the cast), the success of the production would rely very heavily on a convincing performance by the central character. For Jimmy Savile, Maitland had Alistair McGowan on blistering form; for Margaret Thatcher, he has Steve Nallon, permanently associated with providing Thatcher’s voice for Spitting Image. Simply no one can do Thatcher like he can. In the same breath, he can cajole and hector, patronise and flirt, reminding you of that voice with chilling accuracy.
And it’s not just the voice; he has perfected the steely glare that outwits Howe and Lawson in that awful meeting; he has her ungainly walk that veers between elegant lady and impatient streetsweeper; and he has her eyes that, during Howe’s resignation speech, start off smug but slowly lose focus and eventually turn desperate. It’s an amazing performance. Unlike Matt Tedford, the other Thatcher currently on the block with his wonderful Queen of Soho and Queen of Game Shows, Mr Nallon is a big, broad man. I never met Margaret Thatcher but I am sure that Mr Nallon is much bigger than she ever was. But his size lends that suggestion of dominance, of sheer force, the potential for cruelty; and it’s a combination that works brilliantly in this play. Bizarrely, you never look at the character of Thatcher on stage and think to yourself, “that’s a man in drag”; you just think that she has come back to life. The final scene takes us to a meeting between Howe and Thatcher in the House of Lords, where she’s beginning to tread the finest lines of early dementia. Mr Nallon was delicacy personified as his Thatcher tries to retain her old self but fails to make entirely proper sense – a fantastic injection of humanity that you take home with you.
Paul Bradley also gives a faultless performance as Sir Geoffrey, presenting him as a man of quiet dignity and unshakable commitment, fully aware of his personal shortcomings, and with a degree of altruism that is rare in a politian. He is – and I know this is an unlikely phrase to use – superbly bland amongst others with much greater charisma. His dress-down sweater is a masterstroke! John Wark, Graham Seed and Christopher Villiers assume all the other male roles as a wonderful modern take on a classic Greek chorus, keeping us informed as to what’s happening and who’s talking, acting as a perfect interface between the main characters and the audience, intimating at the heroic downfall that will take place. Christopher Villiers’ foul-mouthed Alan Clark (how pleasant it has been to have totally forgotten about him) and bluff, bigoted Bernard Ingham are a particular delight to watch. Carol Royle gives a classy performance as Elspeth, the power behind Geoffrey’s throne; subtly giving him support whilst also antagonising the PM with her worthy causes. Her scenes when she shows herself to be as adept at holding her own as Thatcher are a pure delight. Her reaction when she hears Thatcher say “rout” will long make me think twice about using that word!
A really rewarding and thought provoking play that follows the relationship between two firmly unwavering people. It’s always entertaining to see the underdog win! Beautifully written and superbly performed, its tour continues until the end of November, visiting Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Cardiff, Coventry, Exeter, Eastbourne, Malvern, Guildford and Bromley. Definitely one to catch!