***** STARS

By Nick Pilgrim

This review may contain spoilers. 

Live solo performance hinges entirely on the journey.

The actor must take absolute charge with the tools available to them. Drawing us into their world, they use words, vocal inflections, and body language to interpret and propel the narrative. In some instances, dramatic make-up, prosthetics, and costumes complete the illusion.

By doing this, artists create a mood for viewers to access, understand and embrace. In effect, to understand their point of view and win us over.

During my decade reviewing for Theatre People, standout shows of this nature include:

  • Confessions Of A Mormon Boy;
  • Dead Royal;
  • Every Brilliant Thing;
  • Hold The Pickle; and,
  • Kafka’s Monkey.

Looking at the five examples listed, four are based on actual people, situations and events. Applying an author’s take on reality to their starting points, gives these experiences additional gravitas.

The stakes are raised when influential political figures become points of focus. Iconic examples of this fascinating subgenre include:

  • An Evening With Queen Victoria (starring Prunella Scales)
  • Ann – The Ann Richards Play (starring Holland Taylor)
  • You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush (starring Will Ferrell)

Of special note, all three actors shown in parentheses are primarily known for playing comedy. Using marquee value as an initial drawcard, became a personal victory in the long term. Not only did this trio bring their respective subjects to life, each performer revealed greater dramatic range in the process.

Why anyone would want to dive head first into the political game, has baffled me for the longest time.  Especially, when personality seems to carry as much weight as policy. One may only look as far as Hilary Clinton’s losing battle against Donald Trump, to comprehend the outcome of his victory.

With ‘The Gospel According To Paul’, I got my answer.

Written and performed by Jonathan Biggins, this one-man piece is clearly a labour of love.  (No pun intended).

The show’s genesis, combined with Biggins’ deep interest in his subject, began with ‘The Wharf Revue’. Based in Sydney, that sketch comedy showcase is currently celebrating its twentieth season.  In its latest iteration, few public figures (including the likes of Pauline Hanson and Kim Jong-un) are left unscathed.

Biggins’ spin on Keating has made appearances throughout the years, taking no prisoners in the process. When a short-form skit is expanded into a 90-minute play, I was worried that parody can only stretch so far.

Billings slips into character like a second skin, so much that at times the show felt like a TED Talk or a pep rally. You forget this is an actor plying his trade, he is that good.

Clearly knowing his demographic, the night I attended consisted of appreciative fans. Both in equal measure, for the former Prime Minister in question, and Billings, too.

Immaculately researched, the show unfolds like a playlist of Keating’s passion for justice, rise to power, and shocking exit from politics.

On paper, this approach may sound staid and dry. But true to form, Billings turns the Q & A format on its head.

Biggins uses this opportunity in character, to compliment mentors and ridicule opponents. The irony being, his portrayal of Keating deliberately lacks any sense of self-perception.

This approach pays off in spades, giving us glimpses into unguarded moments like a passion for music, his father’s unexpected death, and at the core of the story, Keating’s challenge to Bob Hawke in 1991 for national control.

Through Billings’ eyes, he recognises that for the sake of the party, its leader needed to be sacrificed.  This gripping moment is recapped with an impact equal to Julius Caesar and his doomed relationship with Brutus.

Quotes drawn from Keating himself pepper the show, and the inclusion of two savage songs highlight the character’s origins as comic fodder. (One may never hear ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ performed in quite the same way again.)

Aarne Neeme directs with pace and an uncompromising flair. There is never a dull moment in his capable hands.

This vision is supported by dramatic lighting by Verity Hampson, David Bergman’s pinpoint sound and video design, and Mark Thompson’s rich and stylish set design.

Playing until Sunday 23 May at The Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, to paraphrase Keating himself, this is “the autobiography we had to have”.

Images: Brett Boardman