Jonathan Biggins’ adroit impersonation of former Prime Minister Paul Keating has its roots in Wharf Revue skits but this biographical lecture is something else again: a painstakingly observed character study; a pithy survey of six decades in politics; a work of theatre.
The Gospel captures Keating in his handsomely appointed office (antique clocks much in evidence, of course). After some grumpy interaction with the audience, he fires up a projector for an old school slideshow which takes us into to the barren streets of post-war Bankstown and the dreary political landscape of the Menzies era – environments through which the young Keating would cut a memorable dash on his way to Canberra.
As he warms to his theme (his own greatness), Biggins’ Keating opens up somewhat. We glimpse the formative relationships in his life – with his father, firstly, and later with political father figure Jack Lang. He touches on his working relationships (the good, the bad, the ugly), the complex partnership he developed with Bob Hawke, and, briefly and, ruefully, his marriage.
Achievements are fulsomely catalogued. Ideological opponents, lightweight thinkers, no-talents and those who betrayed him are dispatched with brutally funny epithets – some straight from Hansard.
Honed and aged over the years, Biggins’ characterisation is richly detailed and seamless. For a non-stop 85 minutes, he all but disappears behind his subject, peeking out only for a couple of in-character but highly unlikely song-and-dance routines. A couple of barbed comments aimed at social media struck me as more Biggins than Keating, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover their opinions were aligned.
Directed by theatre veteran Aarne Neeme, the production is expertly paced and handsomely mounted on a set by Mark Thompson. Music, a sustaining force in Keating’s life, is cleverly deployed and ranges from Tom Jones to Mahler.
As the show progresses, the audience becomes quite vocal. Hums of approval and agreement and aahhs of delighted recollection are more or less constant.
Sometimes it really feels like Gospel is church.
(this review of The Gospel According to Paul is of the production’s 2019 season at the Seymour Centre)