Steve Nallon is returning to Margaret Thatcher and fleshing her out. Alexander Ray Edser discovers how it’s working out.
Steve Nallon’s work was known to millions of people in the 1980s and ’90s. Actor and impressionist (though some would say caricaturist) was the voice of Margaret Thatcher in the hugely popular, irreverent, and sharply satirical puppet show SPITTING IMAGE. The show ran for 18 series between 1984 and ’96.
Nallon’s vocal portrayal of the fearsome British Prime Minister became so popular that Nallon began to make personal appearances as Mrs T, wearing, of course, the famous blue two piece suit. I met him once in Waterstone’s in Birmingham and I confess I cannot remember whether or not he was carrying a handbag—I suspect he must have been.
All this work disappeared of course once Mrs Thatcher left office in 1990. Yet Nallon is reviving the performance, some 25 years later, to play the Prime Minister in Jonathan Maitland’s play, DEAD SHEEP. I wondered what it is like for him reviving this iconic performance after so long; the answers I got were not quite what I thought they would be.
For a start it’s ‘never quite gone away.’ It turns out that Nallon is regularly used to voice Margaret Thatcher as state papers are released. ‘But this is the first time I’ve created the character in a full play.’ What is it like doing it? Nallon fed me back John Gielgud’s line that the secret of good acting is to know the style you’re going to act in.
SPITTING IMAGE was a hard-hitting satire. It turns out that DEAD SHEEP is far from that. ‘It’s a drama, quite moving at times, with comedy,’ Nallon informed me.
The play itself is set around 1989; a time when Margaret Thatcher appeared invincible. Geoffrey Howe was Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary; he had been faithful to her for years, quietly working away in her cabinet. (He was a quiet man; Denis Healey—Labour Front-Bencher—once said being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like ‘being ravaged by a dead sheep’. Hence the play’s title.) Howe had major differences with Thatcher over, among other things, Europe and she sacked him. In response, Howe made one of the most devastating of Commons speeches in modern times; this is seen as the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher.
Although the play has politics in its background it is not really a play about politics; it’s about a man torn between an honourable support for two women of opposing views—Margaret Thatcher and his wife Elspeth. ‘It is the story,’ Nallon encapsulates it, ‘of the mouse that turned, that comes good at the end.’ It’s a human story.
Nallon talked about finding the acting style. ‘In the satire you find your qualities—Thatcher is a sharp, hectoring bully—and you go for it. In the play, creating the role, you’re looking for the grey areas, you want to play the differences.’ Actor Nallon has used all the tools of psychological realism in preparing the role, even engaging in Stanislavski-style improvisation in rehearsal when scenes weren’t coming together. Nallon demonstrated the two versions of Mrs Thatcher down the phone to me; it was an eerie experience.
Steve Nallon is full of enthusiasm for this touring version of DEAD SHEEP. The play had a short run at The Park in Finsbury Park, London last year. But for the revival, playwright Jonathan Maitland has ‘restructured some areas and added new material’—I gather this enables the play to resonate more strongly with the current Brexit debates.
The tour opened in Doncaster, is in Southend at the time of writing and continues its tour till the end of November.
(ReviewsGate will review DEAD SHEEP at Birmingham Rep)
Week Beginning . . .
September 12: Westcliff Palace, Southend
September 19: Northampton Theatre Royal
September 26: Birmingham Rep
October 3: Shrewsbury Severn
October 10: Cardiff New
October 17: Coventry Belgrade
October 31: Northcott, Exeter
November 7: Eastbourne, Devonshire Park
November 14: Malvern Festival
November 21: Guildford Yvonne Arnaud
November 28: Bromley Churchill