The first and most pressing thing to say is that Ian Grieve’s portrayal of Gordon Brown is uncannily, scarily, astonishingly lifelike.
I don’t mean Grieve does a good impression of Gordon Brown, or an amusing caricature. I mean it’s like Gordon Brown is physically present in the room. The dark suit, white shirt with silver cufflinks, black shoes and socks, and skew-whiff lilac tie are precisely accurate. They may as well have been lifted from Brown’s wardrobe when he wasn’t home.
But more than that, Grieve manages to get the facial expressions, the nail-biting and the hair-stroking just right. And the voice. When the spotlight shines on Grieve and he gives bursts of Brownian rhetoric, it is like listening to the man himself all over again. The only person more like Gordon Brown than Ian Grieve is Gordon Brown.
This is a one-man play, with the sparsest of sets (a Downing Street desk littered with phones and kitkats, a black office chair, a full-length mirror) and no interval. At the run at the Trafalgar Studios, the space was so tight, Gordon Brown could reach out and shake hands with the audience, hand out campaign pins, and confront directly those whose mobile phones went off mid-monologue. I suspect one of the offending mobiles was deliberately set off, allowing Gordon Brown to shout ‘if it’s Tony, tell him to F*** off.’ There’s a lot of F-words and C-words in this play.
On the wall ticks a clock, showing it is 5.40am. The second-hand sweeps round, but the other hands stay still, like time has stopped. Other characters are mentioned – Spencer Livermore, Charlie Whelan, Gillian Duffy, William Hague, Robin Cook, and of course Tony Blair – but they never appear. Brown’s staff, due at 6.00am for the morning meeting, are invoked, lambasted, but never arrive, like Godot.
And the rest is purely the words: over an hour’s worth of them. Grieve forgot his lines at least once, but when you’re the only character on stage, with no cues or other people’s lines, it’s easy to keep going. Kevin Toolis’s writing is a combination of excerpts of real speeches, recounts of real episodes, and a great deal of poetic licence. It is part-The Thick of It, part-Hamlet. There are laughs galore, but also parts which were so uncomfortable, I had to look away.
A mild annoyance, pointed out by Paul Goodman is that, despite the immutable clock on the wall, Brown’s words are not located in a precise time. The writer places his character in Downing Street as prime minister, but then as a defeated politician looking back at the campaign, and lambasting the coalition. I wonder if Toolis wrote his play over several years, and knitted the parts together?
The brooding Brown is tortured by his own sense of failure, his inability to understand why people don’t like him, his conviction that things will turn to his favour, and like Napoleon, that he will make a triumphant return from exile. Toolis has picked up bits and pieces from memoirs such as Alistair Darling’s, from Deborah Mattison’s book Talking to a Brick Wall, and from the endless, unflattering stories which did the rounds in the media. The most poignant part is towards the end, when Brown tells us what it was like to spend his 18th birthday in hospital, with his eyes swathed in bandages, blinded by a rugby accident. The audience laughter came to a halt.
There are some questionable political assumptions underlying the play, notably that politicians are self-serving and obsessed with power. Some are, most aren’t in my experience. Also there is not enough analysis of Brown’s handling of the financial crash. It’s too soon to say, but I suspect history will judge Gordon Brown as a prime minister who got every little thing wrong, and one big thing right. How Brown prevented a financial melt-down, with cash-points taped-up and empty supermarket shelves, would be the stuff of a serious, major piece of drama: this isn’t it.
You should go and see this play, especially if you’re at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. But don’t expect a light-hearted evening of laughs. There’s a blackness to the writing, and a crushing weight of pathos, which may leave you, as it did with me, feeling more unsettled than just entertained.
Paul Richards is a former chair of the Fabian Society. The Confessions of Gordon Brown runs from 22nd-24th September (2pm, 7:30pm) at Labour Party Conference, Brighton