The Gospel According to Paul: Review

The Gospel According to Paul: perfectly titled, perfectly acted, and cleverly scripted.

There are moments where you are unclear whether Paul J Keating himself has prepared the script for the talented Jonathan Biggins in his one-man show.

Biggins resurrected his Keating at last year’s Wharf Revue – whether it was because the great man needed another airing, or whether it was because it was too hard to know who would be in charge of the Government by the time the Revue made it around the country. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome return. Keating was always the standout star of the Revue.

The ego of Keating is such a gift to comedy and laughing at politics is perhaps the only salve to the sad state we are in. Biggins is so able to inhabit PJK that there are moments you forget who you are watching. He has the Keating mannerisms: from the fiddling with cuff links, to the stooped stance with turned out toes, distinctive speaking style, and, in profile, looks the dead spit of the great man.

The Gospel is a political history lesson through Australia’s golden age for its true believers. We experience the beginnings of Keating’s career from the precocious 10-year-old who sees himself changing the country, to the eager political student who spent seven years at the foot of Jack Lang who taught him he couldn’t learn more from university than from the coalface, to becoming NSW’s youngest Member of Parliament when first elected in 1969. He was ferociously ambitious, spending time with the great leaders – both elected and those who were running the public service. Why did he spend so much time with old men? Because of their “congealed wisdom,” he said.

Inside and outside politics his ego never wavered. He even toyed with the world of rock’n’roll with his band The Ramrods – but had to revert to politics when they let him down with their lack of ambition.

He revisits his heroes ranging from Mahler to Tom Jones and Winston Churchill. But the focus is mainly on his opponents for whom his best barbs and funniest lines are reserved.

From the viewpoint from our very own St Paul, a lack of real leadership marks today’s political landscape – “there are young people today who have never seen Australia with a real leader.” Morrison is given a serve with, “you don’t become a man of the people by wearing a baseball cap with Make the Shire Great Again. The last decent leader to come out of the Shire was a hobbit”.

And he continues his attack by saying, unlike Morrison, when PJK campaigned in a bus – he was not only on the bus, he was driving it. It was another fallback career, he said.

Against a backdrop of French furniture, Gainsborough and Napoleon paintings, PJK is open in sharing his views on politicians past and present. Pauline Hanson – “if anyone is going to make me support voluntary euthanasia it’s her.” Malcolm Turnbull – “the only man who can make a real leather jacket look like vinyl.” No one misses out as Biggins’ Keating provides equal opportunity insults. While he admired Gough, he said he had no idea about the economy and “you’d never trust him with your piggy bank.”

And Julia Gillard – “she only made a small chip in the glass ceiling.”

Harold Holt was such a bad choice – “he wasn’t even bright enough to swim between the flags.”

There are photos, delivered by a clever ‘slide show’, and commentary given on those depicted is bitingly sharp. For example, he says in introducing Robert J Hawke he saw himself arriving in Canberra able to walk over Lake Burley Griffin and present as the messiah. “Strangely 70% of the population also saw him as that,” Biggins added. The photo shows Hawke in his red budgie smugglers “which he wore long before Abbott” and Biggins quips about his physique in the speedos as “it’s like it follows you around the room”.

After blaming ACTU President Bill Kelty for scuppering his tax reforms, he puts up a photo of Kelty, asking how could anyone stay angry with Kelty with his “mop of hair like it had been cut by a blind barber with one arm”.

Biggins cleverly showcases Keating’s wit and wisdom, his rich rhetoric style, and an ego the size of Everest. I would have loved to have heard a few more of the classic verbatim Keating insults of times past, although those Biggins hurled at today’s politicians would have made Don Watson proud.

Biggins also makes him just a little loveable and he is not afraid to show a little of the humanity of Keating – the regrets over his split with Hawke, his breakup with Annita, the loss of his father, and before that, his grandmother and the inestimable worth of having been loved.

But before we get too sentimental, he’s back to classic Keating, “I know I’m no proctologist but I can recognise an arsehole when I see one”.

Catch Biggins as Keating in the Gospel According to Paul at Sydney Opera House until Saturday 18 May at Sydney Opera House. Or at the Seymour Centre from Monday 15 – Saturday 27 July.

Feature image: Sydney Opera House