Forget the latex doll. Steve Nallon is now a living, breathing and rather scary flesh and blood Margaret Thatcher. The voice is perfect, of course, and the rhetoric still shivery. “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people”. But his/her body language is equally as exquisite and reaps its own laughter. Nallon makes the PM a master of silent commands. One withering look with those executioner eyes has her Cabinet quivering and the audience in hysterics.
But she doesn’t steal the show. For in this touring production of Jonathan’s Maitland’s cutting and highly comic commentary on the events of 25 years ago, The Iron Lady is for once a team player…in a cast headed by the Howes.
Shorn of his Holby beard, Paul Bradley’s portrayal of her right hand man Geoffrey Howe is sensitively spot-on – whilst his wife Elspeth, with her socialist tendencies, is powerfully played by Carol Royale. There is real determination as she calculatingly tackles Thatcher about the homeless at a drinks party and urges her husband to make his resignation count; as it eventually did, to the cost of Thatcher’s career. The domestic scenes ‘at home with the Howes’ are some of the best…as Elspeth steers Geoffrey on his collision course. And there is a brief but deep poignancy about the way she comforts him when his close friend Ian Gow is eliminated by an IRA bomb.
In this telling of the tale, it’s Thatcher’s vindictiveness that brings her down. Having made it clear to the Howes that rough sleepers are nowhere near her agenda, she then whips their beloved country residence of Chevening from under them. That’s when he reaches for his pen…and his wife for her knife.
The playwright includes some excellent hindsight lines in his satirical script. There’s a discussion about whether we could ever have a prime minister who wears a beard. Thatcher decides it would be totally impossible. “Even the Labour Party,” she declares, “would never elect a leader with a beard.”
And whilst propounding his deep European convictions (despite public opposition) Maitland has Howe saying “The people are not always right” – to spontaneous post-Brexit applause.
The flow of the show may be stagey and uneven, but some of the set pieces are a treat. There’s a fabulous fast-phone routine as Howe and Nigel Lawson (Graham Seed) try to set up a face-to-face with the PM before the 1990 European summit… calls flying furiously in all direction between minsters and secretaries. Needless to say the 7am meeting is not entirely satisfactory. And the re-creation of Brian Walden’s post-Rome ‘Weekend World’ interview with Howe is as waspish as it is lispish. John Walk has Walden’s speech impediment down to a ‘T’ … and Bradley reminds us just how hopeless Howe was on TV.
His big speech, when we finally get to it, is a polite and urbane understatement which even contains cricketing similes. He didn’t exactly cause a stink in the house…although Nallon has Thatcher reaching for the comfort of her handbag. After all, it was his pal Dennis Healey who suggested an ‘attack’ from Howe would be like ‘being savaged by a dead sheep’. No; he just opened the toilet door a little … and let the smell gently disseminate. It was the ambitious who took up the cue…and three weeks later The Lady who had outlasted 11 Italian Governments was gone.
Geoffrey Howe (who died in 2015) was clearly a lovely man – sadly short of charisma – but with an empathy all politicians should possess if they are to regain our respect. And that – plus the lashings of wit and wisdom – is what makes this play so endearing and entertaining. Vote with your feet. Go see it.
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