Portrait perfection

The Gospel According to Paul (Soft Tread)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 9 – 13

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Staging of a well-appointed study nods to the sophisticated tastes of the protagonist of “The Gospel According to Paul” as we are introduced to the man himself (#notreally) Paul Keating, if Paul Keating did stand-up, because the show’s early minutes represent an absolutely hilarious rip into our recent run of fellow PMs and observations of how political leadership should look.

This is the show in which writer/performer Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him PJ Keating in what its program notes is “the first three-dimensional, unauthorised autobiography written by someone else”. Stand-up sensibilities aside, we soon settle into a slideshow of his early years growing up in Bankstown, leaving school at 14, and fledgling Labour Party career, including driving his own bus when campaigning for the seat of Blaxland, through to his time in the spotlight as Treasurer giving the country ‘the recession we had to have’ and then as the 24th Prime Minister of Australia …. all interspersed with insight as to his personal obsessions and very funny observations about the current state of Australian politics.

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The history lesson of sorts is also broken up by the occasional song and dance number and some flashbacks to certain pivotal political moments, where Biggins skilfully switches to assumption of Keating’s younger self in delivery. Biggins is a gifted mimic in all instances; his comic timing is exact and his performance is incredibly nuanced in terms of its physicality and through his use of the slightest of gestures and most perfect of pauses and emphasis. It forces the need for conscious reminder that this is not actually the man himself.

With Keating’s zinging sardonic humour at its core, “The Gospel According to Paul” is a well-written and incredibly funny experience that will exceed any audience expectations. The show is about so much more than just fiscal and monetary policy; it is full of fabulous one liners about political personalities of the past and also of our current crop, but also observation of the state of the world in general and how Twitter, for example, will be the death of democracy. Its intimate setting and conversational tone are not only appealing, but mean that it easily flies in what seems like the shortest time.

Biggins in such a skilled performer that he can easily take us from hilarity to pin-drop moments of poignancy in discussion of PJK’s personal-life regrets around his family and marriage to Anita. And his redeliver of part of the Redfern Speech declaration that it was we who did the dispossessing seems especially still significant given the show’s timing during NAIDOC Week.

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A 90-minute solo show is a tough ask for a performer, especially with a meticulous script weighted with details of past events and political personalities as is the case with “The Gospel According to Paul”, however, this represents no barrier to audience engagement. The show’s writing is incredibility clever, even if some down-south suburb jokes don’t land too well with the Brisbane audience and it seems incomplete without an update mention of Hawke’s recent passing. Of course the unpleasant water under the bridge between Keating and his brother-in-arms Bob Hawke makes an appearance in his recollections and reflection of their years as a team, including how it all was undone by ‘that’ Kirrabilly agreement.  Besides the big stories like this, the show is full of facts and not-recently heard names, interesting in themselves or in recollection of the time, depending on audience vintage.

Directed by Aarne Neeme, Biggins conveys an essential humility to Keating, making the realisation more than just a caricature. Still, there is a clear strength of character at the core of his on-point characterisation, evident in his discussion of what leadership is really about, defense of his decisions and reflection on his legacy resulting from reforms such as the Native Title Act and APEC regional leaders’ forum.

“Judge me not for who am I but what I did,” ‘Keating’ suggests as the evening draws to a close and there is an obvious political persuasion in accompaniment of this request, however, you don’t need to be of a particular political position to appreciate the brilliant theatre on show in this sparkling night of entertainment, evidenced by its deserving standing ovation.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

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