Key Points:

A dressmaker's dummy, dressed in slick suit and tie, dominates the stage at the start of The Hollow Men play, which opened in Wellington last night.

The metaphor is inevitable; before long, the National Party's sinister and cynical backroomers strip the clothes off the mannequin and put them on their candidate - and Don Brash's transformation from courtly dork to wily politician has begun.

This adaptation of Nicky Hager's 2006 book is as slick and appropriate as that suit - writer Dean Parker has made admirably fast and funny theatre out of the trail of damaging emails and computer detritus that Hager uncovered.

Of course, the Creative New Zealand grants process is apolitical and concerned purely with artistic merit; but the Labour Government should be most pleased with whichever bureaucrat gave the play a $38,000 grant.

The Hollow Men makes the Nats look sneaky, supercilious and silly - and hammers the point that although Brash might be gone, the party is unlikely to have changed.

Just as Hager's book took its narrative from the shocking honesty of leaked emails between senior National Party figures, the play lets the advisers' own words illuminate the cynical manoeuvring behind Brash's tubthumping.

This is the play's strength over the book - in quick time (and with far fewer footnotes) it sums up Brash as a man far more wily than the courtly dork he appeared. Its savagery is reserved for Brash's puppetmasters, who are portrayed as a bunch of neocon smartypants whose guiding principle was not moral or ideological, but purely pragmatic; prepared to do whatever inflammatory or deceptive deeds it took to woo the disgruntled, the disaffected and the downright racist.

Along the way, Don Brash (played to perfection by Stephen Papps) acquires some guile and loses his likeability. Parker has a deft and humorous touch, recognising the potential for laughs in the more ludicrous parts of Brash's real story, such as advice from American Republican Dick Allen that he listen to Ronald Reagan's fireside chats for inspiration.

It's dialogue-heavy, as you'd expect, but Wellington's highbrow theatre crowds (which last night included Hager, Deborah Coddington and Rodney Hide) don't seem to mind - last night's opening was sold out.

Sam Snedden and Arthur Meek are highlights, all energy and vitriol as earnest young strategists Matthew Hooton and Bryan Sinclair; like Mormons on speed.

There's a brief appearance in The Hollow Men of a character based on me, played by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford; and it's awfully strange seeing yourself on stage.

I was thrilled to see Rutherford is at least twice as good-looking as me, although slightly chastened that she also portrays Don Brash's alleged mistress, Diane Foreman, politicians Winnie Laban and Ruth Richardson - and Reagan, in cartoonish mask and hairpiece.

There's some heavy-handed allusion to the alleged affair, with Brash and Foreman slow-dancing and making eyes at one another.

It was a relief, then, that the onstage me doesn't do anything salacious or even particularly interesting; she simply accuses Brash of pandering to rednecks, snatches a piece of paper from him, screws it into a ball and throws it in the bin, prompting adviser Peter Keenan (played by Michael Keir Morrissey with an excellent wavering morality) to shrug resignedly. "The Herald," he mutters.