The late Labour MP, Dennis Healey, who lived at Alfriston, once commented that being attacked by Tory politician, Geoffrey Howe, was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.
It is that remark which provides this play by Jonathan Maitland with its title. A successful writer and TV presenter, Maitland has been witnessing British politics for over thirty years. It is no surprise he has a finely-tuned ear for parliamentary dialogue.
Directed with telling empathy by Ian Talbot, it will appeal especially to the generation who remember Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played here with astonishing likeness to the real Mrs T, by Steve Nallon; Geoffrey Howe when Foreign Secretary, by Paul Bradley; Eastbourne’s own MP, Ian Gow, tragically killed by an IRA bomb, and Chancellor Nigel Lawson, both by Graham Seed; bombastic Alan Clark MP and Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, both by Christopher Villiers: and Brian Walden, TV interviewer who rolled his ‘r’s’, by John Wark. Designed by Morgan Large, including the green leather front bench in the House of Commons, and a large photograph of the May 1989 Cabinet with the Iron Lady surrounded by her all-male colleagues, you could be forgiven for thinking you had woken up from a bad dream inhabited by the ghosts of politicians past.
Although the actors’ characterisations are uniformly outstanding, the nub of the play is Howe’s momentous resignation speech in November 1990. After sixteen years loyal service to Thatcher and in the glare of TV cameras, just installed in the Commons, Howe tells what extreme damage the PM’s anti-European stance will do to the country. “I wonder where we’ve have heard that before?” whispered many in the audience. Irreparably damaged by his vicious speech, Thatcher resigned a few weeks later.
There is also a fascinating sub-plot which centres on the PM’s bitter relationship with Geoffrey’s strong-minded wife, Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), Their put-downs, not least Margaret’s “the best thing a woman can do is to stay at home”, addressed to Elspeth, then Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, was priceless.
Overtones of ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Yes, Minister’ abound. This is a razor-sharp and savagely amusing production not to be missed.
By Roger Paine.