The Gospel According to Paul

The Gospel According to Paul
By Jonathan Biggins. Soft Tread Productions. Playhouse, Sydney Opera House. May 13 – 18, 2019.

This is surely the best week to spend a night with Paul Keating.  Jonathan Biggins’ masterful rendering of Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, with its witty cuts and tug to the values of true leadership, packs up and leaves us all to it on the day we must vote.

After two decades honing his Keating impersonation in the Wharf Revues, Biggins delivers a fully satisfying 90 minute autobiography of the man and the politician, from his own gilded, faintly Napoleonic sitting room (designer Mark Thompson).

Biggins perfectly embodies Keating’s gestures and swagger, his voice and quick turns of articulate argument and droll cuts, all smartly suited, double breasted.  At first Keating – for surely it is he – seems unsure what to do with us, even reticent, but what drives this show is Keating’s compulsion to tell his story, to convince, argue and relish words and attention.   Many solo shows lack such reasons for talking to us.  

He gets going with a delightfully anecdotal slideshow of his family life and political shenanigans getting from Bankstown to Canberra.  But the real glue, lifting The Gospel According to Paul from funny sketch to ghostly autobiography, is the softer asides of thoughtful melancholy and reflection – like the death of his granny and father, his marriage to Anita, his break in friendship with Hawke and others, even for the mechanical beauty of a 1796 pocket watch held in his palm.   

Biggins rightly shifts gear (and lighting) as his Keating briefly takes to vaudeville, literally dancing and singing, when for once our suspension of belief is nearly grounded.  But these musical moments fit, when  we hear snippets of his beloved Mahler, Chopin and Tom Jones, and Keating remembering rock and roll days managing the Ramrods. 

Keating of course is at his most impassioned on his own political and social achievements like the Redfern speech, the Native Title Act, and how this boy who left school at 14 defied courting popularity and drove key economic reforms.  The audience applauds and mumbles assent throughout, as though to Keating himself.  Hopefully you’ll get to meet this impressive hilarious version when – if Casey Bennetto’s hit musical Keating! The Musical is any guide – The Gospel-teller comes to a place near you.

Martin Portus

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