Edinburgh Fringe 2014
A peek behind the curtains at Number Ten through the eyes of Gordon Brown, arguably the most unsuccessful Prime Minister in the last two hundred years.
The Confessions of Gordon Brown started life as a Fringe production last year before its popularity in these parts saw it expand in length by about fifty percent (rather like its eponymous leader’s waistline during his two turbulent years in office) and transfer to London’s West End. That put it too close to home as far as the PR buffs in the Labour Party were concerned, already scrabbling to deal with the rather geeky style of Brown’s successor as party leader. So they turned down the offer of a gala performance at the Party Conference. Banned it, in fact.
And there’s nothing like getting your play banned for boosting its profile. So the show’s decamped from its expensive London HQ to more prosaic surroundings in the labyrinthine Assembly Mound Place complex.
Writer Kevin Toolis plays the role of warm-up act, rather like those apparatchiks at party conferences who whip the faithful into a frenzy as the time for the leader to speak approaches. But, like the real thing, it’s Ian Grieve we’ve come to see and he doesn’t disappoint. His passable physical resemblance to his alter-ego is enhanced by the well-tailored suit, white shirt and mauve tie so redolent of GB throughout his time at the Treasury and Number Ten. His mannerisms, particularly that nervous jaw twitch and ‘fixed’ smile, capture the way GB appeared in almost every media-crafted session. And his speech and intonation were on the money as well. In addition to all this, he flipped in and out of a range of regional accents as he played cameos of those and such as those who came across his path.
But what about all the dark secrets of Downing Street that the script is supposed to reveal? Well, there’s a scattering, but not quite as many as I was expecting and not necessarily of monumental importance either. What we get instead is a fascinating insight into what GB thought a leader should be like, in addition, of course, to possessing the critical attributes of hair, height and teeth. The need for strength of purpose and utter steadfastness, the need to do one’s utmost every day, a strong work ethic, the ability to dominate were all traits he aspired to.
But we see the other side of his spell at the top as well – his loneliness, his inability to delegate, indecisiveness, never having enough time to concentrate on the big issues, running from crisis to crisis, meeting to meeting, endless photo-opportunities and, of course, the need to connect with the ordinary man in the street. It’s here that Brown fell so hopelessly short of what is required of modern day leaders and Toolis’ generally excellent script gives us an insight as to why – GB was intellectually just too far ahead of everyone, especially his own cabinet. And as for the ordinary MP, mere cannon fodder. Contemptuous doesn’t adequately describe his attitude to the vast majority of those within his operating sphere.
So, is this the real Brown? Partly. In a ninety minute show of contrasts, Grieve switches continually between obvious lampooning (did GB ever crack the sort of one-liners we got here or pummel a computer keyboard so fiercely?) and the more believable side of GB – the earnest, steadfast politician. And his brooding silences contrast with his outbursts at just about anything and everything, especially the unavailability of his staff.
You end up not quite sure what to make of what you’ve seen, thinking Brown to be something of an enigma. But then, to a degree, we all are. Perhaps that’s what the author intended to convey. If so, he’s been successful. You could call this a bit of a ‘Marmite’ show – you are either going to love it or hate it. And we had a few of the latter who voted with their feet about half way through with the better part of a couple of rows of folk drifting away.
But those who stuck it out obviously enjoyed themselves. And someone even won a Kit-Kat by remembering it was the eminently forgettable Geoff Hume who was Defence Secretary at the time of the Iraq War in 2003. No-one could name five members of Blair’s original 1997 cabinet – another of Grieve’s well-timed forays into the audience – which just reinforces the point that, these days, the only one who matters is the occupant of Number Ten. No wonder GB was so paranoid about getting his moment in the sun.