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Review: The Gospel According to Paul at the Sydney Opera House

Review by Alison Stoddart

Jonathan Biggin’s portrayal of Paul Keating was a worthwhile experience on a wet, cold and blustery weeknight at the Playhouse Theatre. Utilising a set that portrays Keating’s character better than words, is a room (or study) in Keating’s home that is decorated with all the paraphernalia that Keating is famous for including vinyl records of Mahler and French antique clocks. 

The premise for the show is set early with Keating (Biggins) inviting us in for a slideshow of his life.  Using an era defining Kodak Carousel, he projects on a screen famous and private family images from Keating’s life.  We are taken on a historical walk through the Labor party of the last 40 years and hear about his heroes like Jack Lang and Gough Whitlam. There is also a nod to the rivalry between Keating and Hawke and insightful acknowledgement of real jealously on Keatings behalf with a brilliant picture of a handsome young Bob Hawke in his budgie smugglers.  Biggins portrayal of Keating’s acerbic dissection of political leaders and politics during this period is spot on including his tearing down of members of his own party. His perceptive views on the characters of fellow politicians and his ability to pinpoint their egoism and subsequently tear strips off them made for entertaining question time.

Biggins tells the story of Keating’s life, curating it in such a way that touches on the big issues in his career but also delving into Keating’s influences and mentors, and even extending to Keating’s moral and guiding principles, instilled in him by society, friends, family and even religion.  The pertinent milestones in his life are all mentioned. From growing up in Bankstown to leaving (catholic) school at 14 years of age, managing a band, to losing his father to a heart attack at sixty.  There were poignant references to love and armour involving grandparents and mothers and Biggins unearths the secular humanist side of Keating and ends the show with a reiteration that humans are capable of being moral and ethical without religion.

Biggins’ use of hyperbole humour comes thick and fast, some which are a bit lame like the Windscreen O’Brien/Julia Gillard/glass ceiling quip, but others hit their mark and have the audience audibly gasping.

The style of the performance was a brilliant enactment of how Keating performed in parliament, right down to the pauses and raising of a finger on the right hand. In fact, Keating’s physical mannerism was so keenly observed that Biggins even seemed to be able to contort his face to make the sagging skin that Keating sports later in life, appear.  Something that becomes more apparent when Biggins finishes the show, takes his bow, accepts the audience applause and lets his face relax.  Amazingly the jowls disappear, a telling realisation of how much in-character he was for the whole 90 minutes. 

The breakouts into cabaret style song and dance did its job in breaking up the slight, but certainly there, monotony of the discourse and Biggins pulls these off nicely.

Although the audience was mainly made up of the Boomer generation’s middle class left leaners, Keating’s influence and notoriety can still be seen by the presence of Gen Z university political students in the row in front of me who laughed and nodded at recognisable policy and the mention of his historic Redfern speech.

The target audience was always going to be Keating devotees and that many Labor voters in one room was on par with Balmain Town Hall on polling day. 

Keating may have the image of a leftie elitist wearing Zegna suits, but Biggin’s show reminds us that the former PM was an intelligent and empathetic man who could cut through the hypocrisy and inhumanity that swirls around leadership in this country. Political comedy of this calibre is well worth the effort.

Image Supplied


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