The Confessions of Gordon Brown, Kevin Toolis's window into the seventh circle of the former Prime Minister's soul, has been well-reviewed – both in the sense of positively and thoroughly. I came to the play's run at the Trafalgar Studios with a preconception of it. Toolis is a man of the Left, or was when I knew him: I remember him telling journalists around a dinner table in Belfast that they should have a view on Northern Ireland's troubles, and not just an eye for the facts. (I rather sympathised with the point he was making, though my take on events was different from his.) He went on to study and write about terror more broadly. I imagined that his play would be at once unkind and sympathetic – suggesting that Brown was a great lost leader of the left, brought low by his own flaws and follies.
And unkind it is – or, rather, unsparing about the Brown I glimpsed on the other front bench of the House of Commons, and that most of us saw on a screen or read about online. Brown is up early, sleeplessly prowling Number Ten, struggling to get ahead of events, and failing – on his way to losing an election. He is the only character in this one-man play and Ian Grieve becomes a ringer for the former Prime Minister. The black suit! The purple tie! The bags under the eyes! The heavy walk, scowl, and hunched shoulders! Grieve's Brown shouts, swears, slouches, bellows for staff, bangs at a computer keyboard with podgy fingers, lurches and shuffles woundedly, picks at a Kit-Kat – cries for a grid, new ideas, new slogans, new announcements: anything to deliver him from the coming defeat. A speech, a speech, my kingdom for a speech!
In between, he rages at his enemies: Robin Cook, foreign dignatories, Gillian Duffy, clueless aides, Alistair Darling, the incomprehensible English and, above all…You Know Who. "Every hour more of him was one hour less of me," Brown cries in his agony. Grieve is outstanding – and quick on his feet, which is almost as important. On the evening I was there, he pumped hands with members of the audience, twitted one about his resemblance to Darling, compered a quiz about who was Defence Secretary during the Iraq War, and turned maniacally on a man whose mobile rang: "If it's Tony," he raged, "tell him to f**k off!" Not witty, perhaps. Or particularly insightful. But horribly plausible and true to life. Laughter trilled throughout from the back row, a bit to the right of me, as Michael Gove and Matthew Hancock enjoyed the show.
And sympathetic it is, too. Or at least, not unsympathetic. (The Labour Party, with its unfailing knack of grasping the wrong end of the stick, has banned the play from its coming conference.) If Grieve's Brown has the desparation of Richard III, it is the Richard of the night before battle: vulnerable, frightened, suddenly alone. There is something moving about the Toolis/Grieve account of the youthful rugby accident that nearly lost Brown his sight, of his weeks of isolation in hospital, of the blurred vision he has endured since – and, shining unbearably bright in the darkness, the example of his father, "the Minister, John Brown". His son's school motto, recited at the door of Downing Street, was: "I will do my utmost." Brown did his utmost to be Prime Minister: that's to say, to look, act, and above all inhabit the part. But he simply wasn't up to it.
What ultimately makes and keeps the play interesting is that Toolis gets this. And because he gets it, he doesn't so much paint Brown as a lost leader as lampoon the absurdity of modern politics: the gloss, the spin, the marketing, the "height, hair and teeth". Indeed, the play breaks out of the confines of one cramped room at a particular time, and turns itself into a meditation on the nature of leadership. In his programme note, Toolis works, probes, and worries away at what this might be – whether, indeed, it is possible at all. Meanwhile on stage, daylight is about to swallow up Brown/Grieve. "Despair is best shared alone," he half-whispers, half-growls. An old tale says that the time in hell is always eternity. Both when the play begins, throughout, and as it ends, the clock at the back of the stage is showing 6.40.