First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 and subsequently transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall, this mordant political satire makes a welcome return to the London stage. There is precious little political satire to be seen in the West End, where long (and sometimes short) runs of musicals are the principal fare. To be fully appreciated, of course, a show like this requires the audience to be pretty well acquainted with the last twenty years or so of British politics. For those who followed the fortunes of New Labour from its electoral triumph in 1997 (to the tune of Things can only get better) to its downfall in 2010, a treat is in store as Ian Grieve performs a tour de force in the persona of the man who made the notorious pact at the Granita restaurant that he would succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister – and eventually did so.
The playwright, Kevin Toolis, sets the scene with great aplomb by addressing the audience from the stage as if they were delegates at a Labour Party conference, but when we see Gordon Brown he is alone in his office, where he gives vent to the full range of his emotions. These include outbursts of the anger and rage to which the otherwise dour Scot was prone. The table is thumped, the chair is pushed over, there is cursing and swearing that would make a trooper blush. But there are also moments of real pathos, as when Gordon recalls his father, the Presbyterian minister, John Brown, and his mother reminding him of his school motto, to strive to the utmost, and enjoining him not to give way to self-pity. Gordon had good reason to feel sorry for himself, after a rugby accident cost him the sight of one eye and left him half-blind in the other, with the possibility of retinal detachment making complete blindness a constant possibility.
Such considerations mitigate to some extent the lust for power that drove Gordon to the leadership of the Labour Party, and the arrogance with which he believed himself to be the man best fitted to lead his country. Demonstrations of his flawed character are interspersed, however, with hilarious observations on British politics (“Hollywood for gnomes”) and society. Height and hair are said to be essential for those who aspire to the top job, the former attribute being lacked by Robin Cook and the latter by William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith. (Napoleon was also vertically challenged, but did rise to the top. Gordon reflects on Napoleon’s last years, shorn of power and exiled – a reflection, perhaps, of Gordon’s own situation.)
I particularly liked the withering sarcasm with which Gordon describes ‘Southland’, the Conservative heart of the sophisticated English middle class, so different from Kirkaldy, the town in Fife for which Gordon is still the MP. Kevin Toolis’ monologue is indeed highly entertaining, and Ian Grieve puts in a stunning performance, enlivened by his occasional interactions with the audience. My only grouse is that it was perhaps too much of a good thing. It ran on for a bit too long. But don’t let that put you off. It is worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time!