Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Gospel According To Paul - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

Writer and performer Jonathan Biggins describes The Gospel According To Paul as “the first three-dimensional, unauthorised biography written by someone else”.

With direction by Aarne Neeme, this one man show fleshes out Biggins’ caricature of former Prime Minister Paul Keating from long-running political satire The Wharf Revue.

Rather than waiting for Keating to literally "get taken out in a box", Biggins delivers Keating’s eulogy while Keating is still alive, and makes a better case for Keating than Keating could make for himself.

This is unabashedly history told by the victor: Keating the economic saviour, Keating the visionary defender of Australia’s place in Asia, and Keating the prescient champion of Indigenous rights.

Biggins acknowledges and takes defiant ownership of the well-known Keating quirks: the clocks, the love of Mahler, the pig farm, and the luxury suits, as if challenging us to use these foibles to dismiss Keating's achievements.

But Biggins also humanises Keating by showing vulnerability, a far cry from the brass of the character when Biggins plays him in The Wharf Revue.

Biggins shows Keating remembering his beloved grandmother, recounting his father's death and twisting with regret over his ousting of Hawke.

The sober format restrains Biggins' anarchic energy, but at times it bursts out and shatters the character he has patiently drawn: not only does Keating belt out a Tom Jones number, in one vaudeville number he performs a nimble tap routine.

In one cheeky moment, Biggins shows us a slide of Norman Gunston at a Gough Whitlam speech, winking at his own blur of comedy and commentary.

Ultimately Biggins is using the persona of Keating to call for courage and leadership in politics.  Pointedly, this Keating reflects that on the campaign trail he not only rode in his own bus, but even drove it.

The Gospel According For Paul does not reach the satirical height of the subtly damning Keating the Musical, opting for a restrained, sincere and hagiographical approach, sustained by Biggins' excellent joke-writing.

Even if the Keating of The Wharf Revue is a little thin for a 90 minute one man show, Biggins packs in enough charm and humour to keep the audience entertained right up to curtain call.