THE GENTLEMANLY ASSASSIN RIDES AGAIN. AND HOWE…
Klaxon alert! Outrage merchants , boots on, scramble! In an election season here are theatre types in North London doing a play about Tories! Written by a BBC reporter! With PM Thatcher played in drag by chap from Spitting Image!
No, panic over, at ease, chaps. Jonathan Maitland is not spitting left-wing venom or, indeed, bashing the late Margaret more than is mild and reasonable. His lively, closely researched account of Sir Geoffrey Howe’s long-suffering loyalty and final explosive demolition of her 25 years ago is in the tradition of James Graham’s determined, fascinated humanisation of politicians in the NT’s This House and the TV play Coalition. And while director Ian Talbot makes the most of playful brief impersonations of some of the more richly impersonateable characters of the 80s – notably Alan Clark – Howe himself emerges well. Here is a principled if unspectacular hero who gave up loyalty only after a struggle, and Ian Gow as a decent man struggling to hold together the pair’s fragile relationship after Howe’s cruel demotion.
As for the casting of Steve Nallon as Thatcher, it is unexpectedly effective: not least because with the sculpted perm, ultra-careful outfits and gimlet eye there always was something faintly drag-queeny about the Iron Lady. It creates a useful sharp contrast with the other woman in the story: Elspeth Howe, wife of Sir Geoffrey and chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council . Jill Baker, with casual hairdo and cheerful flat-shoed bluestocking liberalism makes a wonderful contrast to the menacing burnished-blonde clip-clop of her husband’s Nemesis . The PM patronizes her , calls her “dear” and evinces clear contempt for feminism (we are overshadowed by that vast Cabinet picture of her all-male retinue). At one point she purrs “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people”, to which Elspeth retorts ‘Imagine what you might have achieved if you had been…”
Maitland flashes backwards and forwards from the pinch-point in 1989 to earlier days – when Chancellor Howe rescued the new leader from a potential party revolt, and to the triumphant conference of 1983 when she demanded the opposition be “routed!”. As the years go by the sidelining and undermining of Howe is apparent: James Wilby gives our hero the hesitant credible decency of a clever thoughtful man steamrollered by a ruthless politician. Never pathetic or bumbling, he gives precise sad weight to lines like “ “I am not Heseltine, I can’t prowl the wilderness like a hungry lion” . Domcstic scenes with Elspeth are genuinely touching, Howe sweetly sporting a picture sweater of his beloved Chevening.
Around them four other actors nimbly, entertainingly narrate and take diverse roles: Graham Seed is a strong Gow, John Wark a mischievously lisping Brian Walden, and Tim Wallers a blustering Bernard Ingham and a gloriously camp, offensive Alan Clark, bringing whoops of delight from those with 25-year political memories. The PMQ moment and the denouement, the big cricket-metaphor speech, create a proper House of Commons atmosphere.
Plenty of nice touches: Howe visibly reddening as he heads for the backbenches after twenty-five years in office, grandees scoffing at John Major – “He doesn’t even go abroad for his holidays” , and a nice swipe when the PM is asked about arts subsidy and replies that they should support themselves “Trouble is, art is not about profit as much as about a statement. Usually a socialist statement”.
One point, more in sorrow than in anger: Lady Thatcher was ever a fastidious dresser, and someone in Wardrobe has really got to run an iron over that terrible houndstooth suit on Nallon. Or bin it for something smooth and blue. The hair is great, so is the walk and the glare and the voice. But he doesn’t half need an Ironing Lady.
Oh yes, one note. Sir Stephen Wall, from Howe’s original staff – played by John Wark – saw it on press night and said “Terrific. … a brilliant job at being true to the character of the main protagonists …characterisation of MT was spot on: gimlet-eyed and terrifying but also with a kind and vulnerable side” .
box office 0207 870 6876 to 9 May http://www.parktheatre.co.uk