The Gordon Brown currently bouncing off the walls at Trafalgar Studios is not so much the confection of the writer Kevin Toolis and the actor Ian Grieve as their great big, sweating pudding. Usually actors fail to match the stature of the originals when they play wellknown people but Grieve is a larger-than-life Brown, whose introversion is one aspect that this powerful yet in the end unsatisfactory show fails to capture. This is the former PM as a foul-mouthed bull, caged and ranting in his Kirkcaldy home, madly plotting his return to power – so madly that sometimes he believes he is still in office, waiting for his lackadaisical staff to arrive at 6am.
The supersized approach to Brown has its pay-offs. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign. He compares himself with a deposed Egyptian emperor and the global economic collapse to a biblical plague. The play’s grand theory is that he was burdened by a sense of destiny bestowed by being born the son of a Presbyterian minister who “spoke the word of God and devoted his life to the community” – but that his origins also doomed him. The granite Scot was incapable of wooing “Southland”, as Brown apparently renamed Middle England.
Yet by playing him at one bad-tempered pitch, Grieve makes intimacy, let alone sympathy, hard to achieve. Brown’s failings are hammered home: his paranoia, jealousy, indecision, untidiness, his inability to manage his diary and his micromanaging: “Do I have to do everything myself?” To these is added, on dubious authority, xenophobia, marked in a near-racist and near-libellous speech invoking “small brown men”, “Krauts” and “feckless Greeks”. If the play has one great insight, it is Brown’s dependency on focus groups, the mirror on the wall that never tells him he is the fairest of them all.
Toolis does not explore where this insecurity came from. The accident in a school rugby match that leaves him with a detached retina is awarded a metaphorical significance – the Samson-like blinding of a strong man that leads to moral myopia. It was surely more likely a cause of his pathological caution. As for family drama, Brown almost breaks down at the thought of John Smith’s death and just stops himself calling him a “real father”. Yet his real father outlived Smith and was often invoked by Brown. To the death of his first child and the disability of another, no reference is made, though it is hard to believe such personal sorrows did not seep into public life.
Brown’s Scottish exile is explicitly compared with Napoleon’s on St Helena. Taking comfort where he can, he points out that he is considerably taller than the Corsican, as well as Tony Blair. His hair cheers him: baldies such as IDS and William Hague had as much chance of the premiership as a bald man has of reading the news on TV. Here, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, seated in the audience ready for a post-show panel discussion, laughed dutifully. Vanity is added to Brown’s sins: hair gel in his desk and a dressing mirror in the corner of the room. He is not only a tragic hero brought down by hubris, but Narcissus.
The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Friends tell me of his courage. Power must have curdled the milk of his human kindness. Robinson told the audience that by Brown’s final year in power, relations were so unpleasant, he found them personally upsetting. I have a horrible feeling that, like so much else, Brown brought this play on himself.
Until 28 September. trafalgar-studios.co.uk Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times