GORDON CONTRA MUNDUM…A BLEAK IMAGINING
The focus groups, mourns this briefest of Prime Ministers, always come up with the same words about him. “Strong” and “Solid” are fine. “Scottish” is OK, with reservations. Less hopeful are “Dour” and “Headmaster”. The imaginary voters in South-land, he grumbles, fail him on “Likeability – can it really be a word?” They do not invite him to their imaginary barbecues. They prefer the “thieving, deceiving, lying cunt” Blair, who stole his ideas and his limelight and probably wore lifts in his shoes. “Napoleon was shorter than me. So was Tony. That dwarfish thief! Every hour of his was one hour less of me”.
I have to admit I gave this show a swerve in Edinburgh last summer: poor old Gordon seemed too easy a target, already humiliated in sequence by Tony Blair, his fellow-ministers and the electorate. Gone now, not one to bother satirizing. I went this time because, after all, this man was not only Prime Minister but before that our longest-serving Chancellor, part of a project whose effects are still upon us. Maybe he deserved it…
Anyway, I was wrong: Kevin Toolis set out to write this monologue more in fascination than malice, and allows it to grow into a reflection on the oddness of power and those who seek it. “Power has to be taken…it flows from the crushing of others’ hopes”. There are echoes of Lear and the less successful Shakespearian kings, and in a more ancient aside, he imagines that Brown would have hung on to an clay tablet presented by some Uzbekistan or Tajikistan potentate, engraved with ancient vailglory by “Enkimdu, god of irrigation, the good shepherd…I freed the land”.
Ian Grieve is perfect casting: he catches a credible longing, resentment and fury but also idealism and vulnerability. He hints enough at the physicality of Gordon Brown without overdoing the famous angry-fish gaping tic. We find him in a Westminster office, where the clock is stuck at 5.45 am: waiting for his staff, hammering violently at his laptop as if it were a manual typewriter in long-ago Kircaldy, using that time-stopped moment to express the time he was longing for power, his brief spell in it, the moment of the loss and a delusion of return. There are some moments for laughter, but as often with him as against him. I liked his brutal description of any PM’s standard fifteen-minute face-to-face meetings and photos with endless “little brown men from little brown countries” forever sent by the Foreign Office, and the sharp description of those he raised to Cabinet – ”the smirk folded within their dead smiles”.
There is also a sad, recognizable truth in the way a true-believing socialist may speak fondly of “The People” while loathing actual contact with The Public. Wisely, Toolis keeps mention of Brown’s teenage injury and near-blindness slight but telling: hard to forget the moment his son of the unforgiving Manse remembers a mother at his hospital bedside, banning him from self-pity even at that grim moment.
All in all, not an optimistic portrait of our gnomish Westminster world, but how many other PMs, I wonder, would privately echo Grieve’s cry “I have lost count of all the hateful fools I have endured!”.
box office 0844 811 2334 to 30 July