The Gospel According to Paul (Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne) - 90 minutes without interval
Updated: May 14, 2021
Jonathan Biggins magnificently captures the essence of former Prime Minister and Treasurer Paul Keating in a 90-minute tour de force performance during which you dare not avert your eyes for a second.
He is witty, acerbic and insightful as he parades around a maroon coloured set complete with paintings, clocks on the mantelpiece, a banker's desk and elegant armchair.
Photo by Brett Boardman
Keating was never short of self-belief and neither is Biggins in his guise.
He starts by reminding us what political leadership actually looks like, before lambasting the dismal records of the Prime Ministers that followed him.
Let’s just say he has some particularly choice words for a number, which draws howls of laughter from an appreciative audience.
The rest of the night is spent providing a history lesson, complete with slides.
Biggins, as Keating, charts the life and times of the man born on 18th January 1944, who rose to become Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, starting with the house where he grew up in Bankstown.
He talks about his parents, his beloved grandmother who died when Keating was 11 and an uncle lost to war.
His lifelong love of classical music was sparked when he was 12.
As Biggins tells it, Keating’s introduction to politics came early too, as he was already letterbox dropping for the ALP at age 10 and attended his first branch meeting at 15.
He’d left school a year earlier. Biggins’ shows off a couple of cars Keating drove in the early days and how he tried his hand at managing a band.
He calls Tom Jones the greatest individual artist of his life.
Having dealt with the personal stuff, Biggins charts Keating’s political highs and lows.
He speaks of his political influences and the household names that were prominent during the Hawke-Keating years.
He pauses to send a brickbat Pauline Hanson’s way.
As a pointer to Biggins’ risqué humour as Keating, he describes Harold Holt as “so inept, he couldn’t even swim between the flags”. He is also not averse to using colourful language for maximum impact.
Biggins highlights how effective (at least initially) the working relationship between Keating's predecessor, Bob Hawke, and he was and just how driven Hawke was.
That, of course, was before Hawke reneged on a deal to hand over power to Keating.
In the end, Keating was in Parliament for 26½ years (from 25th October, 1969 to 23rd April, 1996).
As Biggins tells it, he later turned down an Order of Australia and doesn’t want a state funeral when the time comes.
Biggins not only performs as Keating, but wrote the words.
He calls The Gospel According to Paul “the first three-dimensional unauthorised autobiography”.
He says he’s “pretty sure most of it is true and the bits that may not be” he wishes were.
Biggins paints Keating largely sympathetically, as a man of intellect who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
He even takes the opportunity to warble and gyrate a few times on the journey he takes with us.
Biggins’ showmanship and his ability to read and play up to the audience are among his distinguishing features. He is assured and dynamic.
Anyone with a passing interest in politics and in political history would be wise to rush out and buy a ticket to see Biggins in action.
Directed by Aarne Neeme, The Gospel According to Paul is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until 23rd May, 2021.