Early on in Jonathan Biggins’ one-man ode to Australia’s best-dressed, collector-of-antique-clocks Prime Minister, the character of Paul Keating says that there has never been a great Australian PM. None on the scale of Churchill or Washington or Jefferson. And I wondered if the premise of the show was to submit Keating for consideration.
Paul John Keating was the 24th Prime Minister of Australia, elected to office in 1993, after ousting his predecessor, Bob Hawke, in 1991. He was a career politician from the age of 25, after managing a rock band called The Ramrods in the late 1960s. He was only Prime Minister for one full term and a bit, nothing like Hawke (in The Lodge for nearly 9 years) nor his successor, John Howard, who held the country hostage for nearly 11 .
Keating was a member of the Labor Right; socially progressive but fiscally conservative. He’s famous for saying “the recession we had to have” during the economic slowdown of 1990, responding to the High Court’s Native Title Act – delivering the powerful Redfern Park Speech in 1992, and overseeing the introduction of the National Superannuation Scheme the same year.
And he’s got a sharp tongue – once describing Howard as “desiccated coconut” and Howard’s deputy, Peter Costello, as “all tip, no iceberg”. No wonder Biggins wanted to craft a whole show around him, after performing as Keating for many years, often as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s annual Wharf Revue.
He is still the only Prime Minister to get a musical named after him – Keating! – because he’s such an attractive theatrical figure. Italian suits. A passion for classical music. A collection of clocks. All things that his Opposition would use to suggest he was a leftie elitist, but all it really meant was he had a passion for arts and craftmanship. A well-rounded human being.
Biggins does a passable impersonation, but that’s not really what I need in a show like this; his closeness to the subject should be revealed in the details of his life, not in the fact he gets the mannerisms or the voice down pat.
Keating was elected Prime Minister in the first Federal Election I voted in, so I remembered a lot about his time in office as the show went along. The crowd at last night’s show was quite vocal in some parts, having visceral reactions to memories Biggins’ performance dug up. Yes, there were laughs and cheering, but there were also boos at one point and a few “yeahs” and a couple of “oh, I remember that”.
And I guess that’s the kind of response that type of show is best to elicit; digging up memories of successes and failures of the past. If you’re going to trot out the character of Paul Keating for a whole show, you gotta play the greatest hits, that’s what the audience is there for.
I did wonder if this was going to feel too much like a 90-minute sketch, but given the waves of change that went through Australia in the 70s, 80s and 90s, with Keating there all along – a lot of the time as Federal Treasurer – there’s a lot to reminisce about. Biggins also gives Keating some brief, but effective emotional moments about raising children in The Lodge and the sudden death of his father.
I don’t think The Gospel According to Paul suggests that Keating is our one great Prime Minister at all. I think that’s an alluring premise dashed to pieces because the character says that being the Prime Minister should be about leadership and not about the person at all.
It’s an amusing show, if you remember the bits he’s talking about, but I think its real resonance is in the fact we’ll never see his like again as Prime Minister. I mean, look at who has been in charge the last decade.
The Gospel According to Paul is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until May 23rd.
Photo: Brett Boardman