Saturday, 13 June 2015

Theatre review: An Audience with Jimmy Savile

When a show bills itself as controversial long before it's even opened, and withholds photos of Alistair McGowan in character so as not to cause distress*, it's a fairly safe bet that the controversy is manufactured to attract attention. But the first drama to deal with a sexual predator who hid in plain sight was bound to raise questions over whether it was too soon, and the Park's main house was packed for the matinee of An Audience with Jimmy Savile. McGowan plays the notorious rapist, paedophile, necrophile and close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher, whose crimes were long-rumoured but never made public until after his death. The 1970s DJ and TV presenter was instead treated to decades of sycophantic behaviour for his popularity and charity work, regularly referred to as a National Treasure and knighted by both the Queen and the Pope. As the title suggests, Jonathan Maitland's play takes as its starting point just that unquestioning respect, framing the show as a TV special.

Here the Establishment queues up to heap praise on Savile, who gets to re-write the host's questions if they haven't painted him in sufficiently saintly a light. But behind the scenes a runner (Charlotte Page) is concerned when she finds a young girl in Savile's dressing room.

We also follow Lucy (Leah Whitaker,) who as a child in the '70s was one of his victims, and who as an adult keeps running up against brick walls when she tries to take the story public. Her own family don't believe her, and even when she gets first the press, then the police to look into it - many other women's testimony backs her up - the story is quietly dropped when strings are pulled and threats are made. As well as direct threats, Savile implies that his reputation is so wound up with institutions like Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Broadmoor, that to expose him would make them vulnerable too.

McGowan is of course best-known as an impressionist, and until recent years Savile was one of those people, like Sean Connery, that everyone attempted an impression of. So it's no surprise if his performance is accurate, but it's also suffused with utter menace, his insistence that he's done nothing wrong, and God and the Establishment will back him up, always tinged with an edge of threat. And Maitland's play does do a good job of reminding us that apart from the child abuse he's most hated for, there were also links to organised crime and even suspicion that he might have been the Yorkshire Ripper.

Unfortunately the writing isn't as compelling as the subject matter, with lines - "I don't hate you any more, I just pity you" is the most egregious - straight out of a daytime soap opera. The structure feels sloppy as well, with the talk show framing device often seeming to get forgotten. And although Whitaker is a strong actress, she's got it all to do to make the generic, underwritten Lucy feel real, not helped by Brendan O'Hea's perfunctory direction.

And while the play shows how Savile's extraordinary network of influence protected him for so long, it doesn't touch on how he was able to put himself in such a position of power in the first place. More interesting is Maitland's theory on how Savile justified it all to himself: Seeing his Papal Knighthood as the Church's approval, he views his life as a chilling "credit card" of sin and absolution - a rape paid for by doing a charity marathon. The early controversy over An Audience with Jimmy Savile wasn't really about the play itself but about whether it was "too soon" to tackle the subject. As one of theatre's biggest strengths is the speed with which it can respond to current events, I think the play fits into that long tradition, but I hope its success doesn't leave this as the "definitive" drama on the subject: There has to be a better play in this dark story than Maitland's, which feels like it covers a series of bullet points rather than really creating something dramatic.

An Audience with Jimmy Savile by Jonathan Maitland, containing research from In Plain Sight by Dan Davies, is booking until the 11th of July at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

*although personally I find the images of Savile's cigar-holding hand a lot more sinister than what is clearly McGowan in costume

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