The Gospel According to Paul. Written and performed by Jonathan Biggins. Directed by Aarne Neeme. Soft Tread. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Bookings (02) 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au. Until March 31.
On opening night, the Playhouse was pretty well packed for Jonathan Biggins’s view of Paul Keating. And rightly so. Divorced from the briefer sketch material of The Wharf Revue and under the steadying eye of director Aarne Neeme, Biggins clearly enjoys exploring the life, times and personality of the boy from Bankstown who became prime minister.
It’s a narrative full of the idiom of the man and it’s that which is most enjoyable. Surrounded by expensive old paintings, clocks and old-fashioned technology like records and a slide projector, this Keating ruminates, often quite savagely, upon his life, his rise, enemies, friends, his views and the present.
The slides are the stuff of history for younger audience members, but they have a real poignancy if you are old enough to remember Menzies, Holt, Bob Hawke, Gough and The Dismissal. Keating sat at the feet of an even older politician, Jack Lang, and his strictly timed sessions with Lang are a key part of the show’s description of his early training in politics. And the evocation of an earlier Sydney where Keating could have a go at rock 'n' roll band management in the suburbs strongly suggests the younger man’s individualistic and ambitious style.
In a suit that suggests rather than reproduces his sartorial fashion, Biggins’s Keating roams around the room, fishing up memories, flashing up black and white images of the past and finding some solace in classical music.
The monologue is rich and Biggins handles it with great ease. This Keating can weather a microphone malfunction, incorporating it into the show, and deals ruthlessly with the notion that audience participation might enhance the evening. Keating is here to tell us how it was and is and to put something of the past into an understanding of the political present.
Biggins shows the exhilaration of the rise to power and also the sense that this man sees it as a logical due for hard work and self-education by someone who left school at 14. No university for young Keating (Lang was against this), but a study of how things work and subsequent application of such knowledge to politics.
There are also glimpses of a sadder, more private side. The deaths of his father and mother and the unravelling of a marriage are touched on but not dwelt upon. There are odd moments of sensitively suggested regret and gloom and strong suggestions of no-go areas as he hunkers down restlessly in a period armchair.
The present state of political affairs is not immune from his pungent comments and calls for values and substance.
But when the script’s switch is thrown to song and dance or a bit of Tom Jones in his prime, the best elements of The Wharf Revue skilfully complement the serious stuff. After all, this was a prime minister that one used to glimpse sliding into a seat at the theatre just as the lights went down.
And this, of course, is the right town to see the show in.