Playhouse politics

The Gospel According to Paul (Soft Tread)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 20 – 24

Politics have taken over the QPAC Playhouse this week with “The Gospel According to Paul”, Jonathan Biggins’ ‘three-dimensional, unauthorised autobiography of Paul Keating’, upgraded from its previous 2019 Cremorne Theatre run, which sold out before the season had even begun, such is the demand of audience members eager to be entertained with the wit and wisdom the comes from 50 years of public life.

Satirist Jonathan Biggins has been play Paul Keating for a long time, beginning in the long-running Sydney Theatre Company success story, “The Wharf Revue” so his impression of the 24th Prime Minister of Australia is, of course, impeccable, down to the on-point timing of his many one liners. And thanks to them, we are laughing from the outset in his attempts to engage empathetically with the audience stand-up comedian style and then his quippy commentary upon the dismal record of the last 14 years.

Moving through mockery of modern day ‘man of the people’ politicians more concerned with their Instagram likeability than doing what needs to be done, we are taken through his history lesson about what strong leadership actually looks like and the imagination and courage at its core. In a space staged to represent the former Prime Minister’s formal office of cultured, beautiful things, projections help bring the story of Keating’s political career to life. Humour comes easily, often courtesy of Biggins’ conveyance of his subject’s ego and subsequently profane inability to suffer fools easily. There is nowhere to hide in this solo show and for 90 minutes, Biggins is Keating, drawing us into the reality being presented through the smallest of details such as vocal inflection, body language and movement. And the result is spontaneous applause for both his ridicule of political rivals and the pathos that comes from his reflection of his legacies, such as enactment of the Native Title Act to enshrine indigenous land rights. Indeed, the authority with which he delivers a section of his landmark Redfern speech represents an unexpectedly-moving moment.

Light and shade makes for what is perhaps a surprising monologue journey, a credit to Biggins, who also wrote the show. Along with taking us through his rise from the New South Wales Labour Youth Council to Australian Labour Party, eight years as Treasurer and then also Deputy Prime Minister of the country before serving as Prime Minster 1991 to 1996, he talks us through his powerful political partnership with brother-in-arms Bob Hawke and the good stuff about the now-not-so-secret Kirribilli agreement that ended up fracturing their union. Yet, things are never dry thanks to Director Aarne Neeme’s pacey direction, as the audience is taken, for example, from Keating’s brief recall of marriage to flight attendant Annita, through to hilarious recall of the unrepresentative swill of the senate and then back to melancholic memories around the loss of his parents. And all of this is after his all-in musical gush about the greatest artist of his lifetime, Tom Jones.

With its talk of biographical milestones, landmark political achievements and personal obsessions, a lot of the show’s content remains unchanged over time, however, while the work is back in Brisbane for a repeat showing, things aren’t always exactly as they have been before, courtesy of mentions of TikTok, the cross river rail link and alike. Regardless, however, Biggins’ idiosyncratic performance is of such precision, that the “The Gospel According to Paul” is a show that can easily been seen again and again, if only to better be able to wade through its many witty quips and wise observations, many of which are now just as relevant as ever given the COVID-inflicted economic downturn’s similarity with the 1990s ‘recession we had to have’ at his hand.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Portrait perfection

The Gospel According to Paul (Soft Tread)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 9 – 13


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.


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 Annita. 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.


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