This play has been doing the rounds of the UK since its first appearance at last year’s Fringe and is still attracting big audiences this year. The advertising flyer describes Brown as “our greatest failure at being Prime Minister in 200 years”, a sweeping statement I personally don’t agree with, and I expected it to be a cruel hatchet job on the man. It’s not quite that but it does portray all the alleged negative aspects of Brown’s personality that we read about in the papers – the temper tantrums, his impatience with subordinates, his obsessional loathing of Tony Blair among others. However it also shows him in an almost sympathetic light – having to overcome his disability of almost total blindness, his feeling that he is a victim of circumstances, his constant struggle to find that elusive “likeability” factor essential for the modern Prime Minister.
Writer and director Kevin Toolis is an award winning screenwriter (Complicit, Confessions of a Suicide Bomber) and was previously a political journalist who is obviously very familiar with the machinations of government and the preoccupations of the political chattering classes. Ian Grieve gives an excellent performance as Brown, capturing the complexity of the man as well as his mannerisms, including that awful rictus grin which attempted to show his softer side.
The set is his office in Downing Street, the clock on the wall shows 5:45am, and Brown is already at work – thumping furiously on his keyboard and berating the fact that his staff have not yet arrived. He reflects back on his life – from his upbringing in a Presbyterian manse in Fife through a long career in politics to this moment, his much longed for moment of power and chance at leadership. Where did it all go wrong he wonders, why have the public not warmed to him and what can he do to survive? He blames everyone and everything but ultimately he recognises that it comes down to one thing – he is not the type that Mark and Tricia of Southland, Mr and Mrs Average as identified by focus groups, would want to invite to their barbecues as they would have invited Blair or Clinton. This is what is lacking – not intelligence and ability which he has in spades, but the common touch, that “likeability” factor. This theory probably does apply in “Southland” but I don’t think reflects Brown’s reputation and standing North of the Border.
Despite being billed as a comedy, there are few actual jokes and not a lot of new insight or angle to those of us already familiar with In the Thick of It and other satirical comedy shows. Where it works best is viewing it almost as a Macchiavellian treatise on power – how the pursuit of it becomes all-embracing and ultimately destructive.