The Joan, March 8
If those opposite would try the novel experience of piping down and just listening – which I know, technically, is doing two things at once, thereby putting them at full stretch – the point I’d like to make is that this is a show for true believers. It’s a show for those who believed Jonathan Biggins’s gifts not only extended beyond The Wharf Revue, but to better big-picture works than his play Talk.
Here he’s nailed 85 minutes of his near-flawless Paul Keating impersonation (the Zegna suits being still out of reach), while having devised a script that hoists itself out of long-format sketch-comedy, and into the lusher pastures of dramatized biography.
If the point of Biggins’s Revue Keating was to satirize the man (however affectionately, and usually while lacerating what passes for policy and leadership in contemporary politics), here his intent was more ambitious. Biggins drills down below the acerbity, visionary policy implementation and unapologetic self-aggrandisement into what makes the man.
If that sounds like a fascination with Keating is compulsory, it’s not. You’ll still spend most of the time helpless with laughter at the barbed wit coupled with the completeness of the performance. What makes this Biggins’s finest work is that as the show progresses you forget it’s him. The man on stage becomes PJ Keating, trawling through the extraordinary story of the boy who left school at 14 to become the politician whom longer-lens history may acclaim as most thoroughly reshaping Australia across a range of policy areas, including an Asian pivot (before the term was invented) indigenous affairs and, obviously, matters economic.
Yet Biggins is not worshipping at some messianic altar. He still has us laughing at the man rather than with him when the character lacks self-awareness to a startling degree. The way is also strewn with the corpses of Keating’s verbal skewering, variously including Morrison (“the last decent leader to come out of the Shire was a hobbit”), Peacock, Hawke, Howard, Jones and Rudd. Meanwhile he deftly weaves moments of unexpected poignancy into the play that elevate it closer to Alan Bennett’s one-handers.
Keating tells us that he was always drawn to beautiful things, so he should be drawn to this, for which Biggins brought in such A-team accomplices as director Aarne Neeme and designer Mark Thompson.
The Gospel According to Paul: Riverside, April 10-13; Playhouse, May 13-18.