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Theatre Review

August 22, 2019

The Gospel According to Paul
Written by and starring
Jonathan Biggins
Directed by Aarne Neeme
Soft Tread production, Seymour Theatre

I have said for some time that Jonathan Biggins is a national treasure and this brilliant show confirms that. He is best known as one of the originators of The Wharf Revue and his Paul Keating comes from there.

I did not particularly enjoy the revue last year; it was good but not great, except for a number of stand-out sketches. His Keating is his best and funniest yet. He captures his physicality and voice, and using these he is scabrous as he attacks all the current politicians. For some reason I was initially expecting more of this but that is not the case.

This is a 90-minute play set in the great PJ’s office, full of carpets and beautiful alarm clocks, in which Biggins as Keating tells us the story from his humble beginnings in Bankstown through to now. There are moments when it is Biggins playing Keating that we hear and these are very funny laugh-out-loud moments, but it is the actual stories of Keating that take us on a journey through the politics of our country from the 1960s to the present. For political animals like myself, it is a trip down memory lane as he takes us through those times using a slide show and some very funny and poignant memories. For those who are not as politically aware, it is a great history lesson filled with humour and fantastic observations.

The show is brilliantly directed by a blast from the past, Aarne Neeme. It has played for quite some time around the country and will be put to bed as Biggins starts preparing this year’s revue. But I have no doubt it will reappear, as will Things I Know to be True.

Stunt casting has, unfortunately, become a norm in big theatre productions as a means of dragging in an audience. When I was last in London, the billboards were everywhere with Rebel Wilson in Guys and Dolls. The interesting thing is that she does not play the main role, rather that of Miss Adelaide. It is the comedy lead and she did it well but every now and then she became Rebel Wilson playing Rebel Wilson. Recently we had the opportunity to see the musical, Sweeney Todd, with the superb Anthony Warlow. Alongside him they cast Gina Riley from Kath and Kim. She has great comedic timing but the role really requires a belter. I have seen the great Patti LuPone twice, Geraldine Turner and Judi Connelli all blast Mrs Lovett to the skies. Ms Riley was unable to do this, meaning this production was good but not great. Mr Warlow was a terrific Sweeney and I have better hopes for Jekyll and Hyde later in the year.

Things I Know to be True
By Andrew Bovell
Directed by Neil Armfield
Belvoir Theatre

Just after seeing this wonderful production, I was so high on the show that I sent texts to friends that it was one of the best plays I have seen. I won’t resile from that and have been thinking about the reasons for my analysis. First, it was a welcome back to the great Neil Armfield as director at Belvoir. Armfield has directed some of the best productions in Australia while also being at the helm of Belvoir for 30 years. He has an ability to find the way through plays and stripping them back to allow audiences to hear what the writers intended. Add design by Stephen Curtis that puts us in the family backyard in suburban Adelaide, cement ground surrounded by a Colorbond fence and a garden of roses that takes us through the seasons. Add lighting by Damien Cooper, costumes from Tess Schofield, music from Alan John and sound from Steve Francis and you have a production team of the top people in Australian theatre. There is nothing flashy about this production, it is just perfect.

Essentially it is a play about the Price family. Dad Bob (Tony Martin) has retired early and fills his time by tending to his beloved roses. Mum Fran (Helen Thomson) is still working after 35 years as a nurse. She is rock solid, pragmatic and the one who hands out tough love while Bob is the loving dad who hugs his kids when he thinks they need it.

The play opens with a phone call that indicates a crisis we don’t realise until the end of the play. It then leaps to Rosie (Miranda Daughtry), the youngest of the four children. She tells of her trip away, which she has not been enjoying, and wondering why she is in Europe, until she meets the “love of her life” who robs and dumps her, leading her to come home. She does a wonderful introduction to the rest of the family, leading them onto the stage like a string of paper cut-outs. The family gathers in the backyard and we meet Pip (Anna Lise Phillips), Mark (Tom Hobbs) and Ben (Matt Levett). From the love and welcoming home it seems the Prices are an ordinary suburban family but naturally it wouldn’t be a story if it was that simple.

Like all families, there are different stories lurking below the surface and as the seasons change (indicated by the roses) each of the children take us on their journey. Pip has two children and a high-flying job in the Department of Education. She announces she is leaving them and going overseas to work. Fran suggests there is a man involved and probably married, which is denied (there is). Ben is a high-flyer with expensive, flash cars that are out of the understanding of this family. He wants way more, which gets him into trouble. But it is Ben’s story that rocks the family the most. While Fran gives harsh responses to each predicament, Bob gives his support with love and hugs as he knows no other way. He is tested by both Ben and Mark, and it is Mark’s story that ends the first act.

Mark has told Fran that he wants to meet with his parents as he has something to tell them. He has recently finished a three-year relationship and they assume he is going to tell them he is gay. They are prepared for this but are rocked when Bob jokingly says he hopes he is not going to be one of those gays who goes around dressed in women’s clothes. There is a deadly silence and Mark announces he is going away to the city and from now wants to be known as Mia. Fran asks him if he will ever be Mark again and says that this means her son will no longer exist as such. Bob has trouble digesting the situation. I rarely cry but I was finding this so moving. The scene plays out with Bob and Mark talking but not communicating, and the house lights have been gradually rising. They leave the stage and the audience is left in silence looking at an empty stage. Brilliant.

As the parents and children react to the different happenings, we learn more about the relationship of Bob and Fran. There is much more playing out there. The most moving conversation is when they say that they thought their kids would each grow to have lives just like theirs. Needless to say the play moves on to a climax that takes us back to that phone call at the beginning, which can only mean some tragedy.

While all of this sounds tragic, it is not. As with all families, there are times when things are light and funny.

Andrew Bovell is a brilliant writer. His play, Speaking in Tongues, became the classic film, Lantana; his play, After Dinner, is a side-splitting comedy; Secret River is currently playing at the National Theatre in London; and his collaboration on Who’s Afraid of the Working Class is about to have a follow-up show produced in Melbourne.

The cast is brilliant with the extraordinary Helen Thomson making every line a winner. She has the best comedy timing. The rest of the cast equal her and it was great to see Tony Martin back on stage and delivering a solid performance as Bob.

As I said, I rarely cry but this had me going for ages — even now as I am writing this. I suspect a film will be in production very soon.

Frank Barnes is a Life Member


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Authorised by Maxine Sharkey, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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