The Gospel According to Paul

By Jonathan Biggins. Playhouse Sydney Opera House. 4 – 23 June, 2024

Reviewed : 6 June, 2024

Photo : Daniel Boud

Jonathan Biggins is no stranger to those who are devotees of The Wharf Revue, where Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott satirised the mean and the mighty for over twenty years. Biggins has played everyone from Bob Brown to Donald Trump and King Charles. But it is his wry, sardonic, self-assured interpretation of Paul Keating that audiences love best. Perhaps because, like the once PM himself, he keeps coming back to haunt the revue’s more recent political targets.

Biggins, like Keating, is a man of stature. He holds himself tall; keeps himself fit. Also like Keating he is intelligent, insightful, politically and socially aware. As an actor he’s used to delving into characters, pulling them to pieces, finding their raisons d’être and especially their bêtes noir! He’s observant, a watcher who picks up on mannerisms – the way his subjects stand, walk, sit, gesture, speak, hesitate – and uses them subtly to create the caricatures he develops so well.

Biggins is also a playwright, used to developing characters and plot lines. Used to researching ideas and facts. So it is not surprising that it is not just Keating the politician that he brings to the stage in this ‘gospel’. It’s Keating the self-made man; the wordsmith; the thinker; the leader … and … Keating the aesthete; the collector; the wise.

Photo : Daniel Boud

So clever is Biggins’ theatrical artistry that sometimes one forgets that it isn’t Paul Keating himself on the stage. The dark suit, the polished shoes, the sartorial elegance, the slight stoop, the turn of the head, the studied gestures, the perfectly judged pauses … and the immaculately timed delivery – all are perfected without any trace of mockery.

Keating himself has acknowledged Biggins’ discerning perspicacity and nuance:

Jonathan earnestly seeks to do me justice and has sharply picked up upon the compelling trait of needing to do good– the trait that has always electrified me – given it all a purpose. *

On a beautifully conceived set, gracefully framed by two burnished pillars with antique furniture, gold framed artworks, and two ormulu clocks adorning an ornate fireplace, Biggins’ Keating begins the performance with a crack at his producer who has suggested that interaction with the audience might provide some empathy … “Empathy,” he sneers with a wicked smile, “why start now, sweetheart.”

Thus he begins the story of a boy called Paul who left school at 14 and went on to become the 24th Prime Minister of Australia, leading the country from 1991 to 1996. Sardonically he uses a slide show to take the audience back to his childhood, his early years in Young Labor, his many talks with his mentor Jack Lang, his rise through the ranks of the Labor Party, the Whitlam years, the Dismissal, the return to government as Treasurer and eventually as PM. Every event is scaffolded carefully … and interspersed with the cynical quips and mockery that became his trademark.

There are far too many to quote …but …

Of his old fibro home in Bankstown:

Fibro … an old French word for asbestos.”

Of the 1950s and 60s:

The policy coma of the Menzies years.

Of a Xmas photo shoot for the Women’s Weekly:

Those Christmas jumpers! I looked like the illegitimate son of Jenny Kee and Al Grasby.”

More serious moments of reflection included quotes such as …

“Music is as important as oxygen”;

and, very seriously,

Federal politics is no business for a family man”; “leadership needs imagination and courage”

“Fantasy and imagination were the sole liberators – influences the great bulk of the colleagues could neither measure, catalogue, box or most of all, emulate”. *

Biggins finds the music loving Paul in the story of the “Ram Rods”, a band he promoted in the 1960s, the first time he heard the Warsaw Concerto, his admiration for Tom Jones … and of course, Mahler. It is Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony that is used to close this enacted biography.

Photo : Daniel Boud

The historical tension is broken with some typical “Biggins moments”: Keating doing an impersonation of Tom Jones’ “Delilah”; a song and dance routine explaining fiscal policy; and a finale rendition of “That’s Life” that encapsulates “the power of the big idea” that was Paul Keating’s “guiding light” …

“… what the job was about. And doing it all with as much mocking and hilarity as one could reasonably get away with.” ♦

The Gospel According to Paul concludes its national tour in Sydney this June. It’s a must for fans of Prime Minister Keating, anyone who lived through the changing times of the 1970s, 80s and 90s and, of course, all those who love The Wharf Revue.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

♦From a Statement from the Honourable Paul Keating for The Gospel According to Paul at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday 16 April 2024