Apocalypse Now Then: A Review of ‘An Audience With Jimmy Savile,’ Park Theatre, London, 9th July.
It is easy to conclude that a show like this shouldn’t exist. As Alistair MacGowan mentioned to me in a post-show interview, ‘The Tabloids concluded straight away this production was in poor taste, but the broadsheets all saw that it had merit’.
Take the cursory time to consider the development of this show and you learn that ‘An Audience With Jimmy Savile’ was written by investigative journalist Jonathan Maitland, using real-life transcripts of dialogue by Savile. Some sourced from police interviews, bolstered by the accounts of his former victims. Add to the melting pot that Alistair MacGowan not only had second thoughts, but ‘third, fourth and fifth thoughts’ about playing Savile, and we’re in thoughtful territory- hardly bad taste. So what was it that convinced MacGowan to play this sordid role? He mentions that a friend told him it would allow the public to achieve catharsis. That the show would allow us to finally see Savile confronted for his crimes, even if it is only using fictional dialogue. Savile- with his pantomime child-catcher persona- serves as an analogue addressing an array of issues here. He psychically sticks in the craw because he got away with it. This show addresses that.
A piece of art should not only be appraised for its content, but for its standpoint, its concept. Before the curtain is even raised at this small, arty theatre in central London, this show thereby deserves praise. It offers us, the public, the opportunity to examine why we have created mass institutions. Why the facades of celebrity protect people like Savile from justice. In holding up such a fine mirror, this show serves one hell of a function.
The set up is simple- a central red chair allows the cast of five, playing various roles, to follow two narratives. In the first Savile is the star of a sycophantic edition of This Is Your Life, in all but name. In fitting with this, the show begins with Savile’s ‘achievements’ being exuberantly announced to us, the unwitting audience of this fictional talk show. Shadow boxing amongst the smoke, from the back of the stage, ‘Savile’ enters, and creates a genuine shiver of revulsion amongst us.
MacGowan comes onstage, Savilism’s trickling from his lips as easy as lies. MacGowan, settling into the red seat, seems to more than embody the dark spirit of this modern-day bogeyman. Indeed, as the show progresses, he seems to channel something much more than the mere catalogue of ‘now thens’ and ‘young mans’ that we all know and hate. Step-by-step, MacGowan takes us to the point where he gets to portray the font of dark rage at the heart of Savile. This anger is revealed only when the mask is pulled off, when the control Savile craves is put under threat. Savile bullies the presenter into ‘asking’ him about exaggerated achievements. Like the most charismatic merchants of nothingness that we see in the media today, Savile pulls you into his own rhythm, syntax and worldview. During the fake interview MacGowan is fully immersed in Savile’s peculiar, rangy riffs, from the first moment to the last. When the lights are dipped, Macgowan actually seems to be Savile. God knows how, but he even captures the bulging eyes, the indulgent slouch, the sense of flipped switches that Savile constantly conveyed. One moment boasting and bullying, the next retreating into a passive-aggressive haze of cigar smoke.
We soon see what happens when Savile’s worldview is tested- a burst of rage that makes the whole crowd jump. One rather challenging audience member refuses to turn their phone off and the confrontation is direct and furious. ‘You turned your mobile off yet, young man?’ he roars, adopting the condescension that seemed as all the rage in the eighties. ‘Well, we’ll all wait until you do,’ he adds, to the frozen member of the public. In such moments we, the audience, are actually confronted by Savile. A former victim of Savile’s that I spoke to after told me of their desire to run onto the stage and strangle him.
Savile here demeans a young female stage-hand by grabbing her hair, demanding she come backstage to give him ‘biscuits’. When falteringly asked what type, after a Pinteresque pause, Savile replies ‘ginger nuts’. It’s testament to Maitlands’ writing skill that his Savile soon blurs what he wants with who the woman is. In later scenes Savile then refers to the stage-hand as ‘ginger nuts’, and the laughter prompted in the audience is hollow indeed.
In the second narrative a middle-aged woman is haunted by her rape at the hands of Savile, as a hospitalised child. Her father (a brilliant amalgamation of Little English evasiveness played by Graham Seed) begs her not to scratch the façade of familial happiness that he’s so carefully maintained. Their relationship serves as a concise analogue for how England dealt with Savile. ‘Sweep it under the carpet,’ ‘it can’t be true’ and, perhaps, most tragically, ‘perhaps you are to blame.’ Her, Maitland captures that catalogue of cowardly disengagement with skilful brevity.
Leah Whitaker, playing in one character a combination of many of Savile’s victims, takes on a difficult task with commendable spirit. At first her sudden kinetics and impassioned breathiness seem overly dramatic, but such an impression soon seems mean-spirited. In the character of ‘Lucy’ she confronts people about the abuse she suffered again and again, and she acts as the cleansing white to Savile’s black. Police officers are (in a most English way) mean-spiritedly supportive and easily beaten off-track, having recently promised to ‘leave no stone unturned.’ The supporting cast capture England, from the bully-boy surliness of Savile’s chauffeur to the greasy support of a newspaper editor, who predictably wilts under pressure.
Maitland captures precisely quite how Savile was able to get away with it, during the many confrontations between Savile and the people who tried to call him to account. Savile makes mincemeat of the talk show host that questions his backstage behaviour. Circling him like a matador, and menacingly reminding him that they are both part of the same media ‘family’. A newspaper editor, played with great swagger by Robert Perkins, seems determined to hold the tracksuit sporting pervert to account. But by unbalancing him with insults, appeals to his intelligence, and spiky mentions of support in high places, Savile neuters the threat. In a deftly choreographed police interview scene (drawn from a frustratingly toothless real-life encounter) two officers question Savile under caution. Savile, like many of those desperate to cling to power, orchestrates every aspect of the event. Needless to say, the officers are ruffled, and they soon scurry back to the comforting rhythms of their own lives with the gentlest questions traced on their notepad.
All of this begs the question- what was Savile’s internal logic about his crimes? In one of his many indulgent riffs Savile here talks about wanting ‘total freedom’, and it seems that everything about him, from his abuse to his gaudy choice of leisurewear, was about his pathological desire to achieve this. Savile designed his life so there was an exact join between desire and realization- a juncture that celebrity still permits. Savile really seemed to think that the scale of his fundraising gave him freedom to fondle and rape vulnerable people whenever he wanted, and anyone seeking redress was, in his words, ‘a fly’, to be swatted off. Like many abusers, Savile hated details offered by anyone but him. Beware the man in power who paints his own portrait in broad brushstrokes, allowing no ones else’s colour to leak into the frame.
I can’t really go into how the show achieves catharsis about Savile without giving too much away. But I will say that Maitland breaks down his psychopathology in some exhilaratingly dramatic scenes.
‘It that really how you think it works?’ Lucy says, confronting the presenter in the shows climax. ‘Rape, marathon, rape marathon?’ Pleasingly for us, but perhaps departing from possibility, Savile let’s her speak, and Lucy unfurls her hypothesis regarding his evil. She belittles him, calls him to account, makes him hear her festering grievance. I won’t tell you how Savile reacts. But catharsis is achieved. A sense of justice which our ‘Great British Institutions’, with all their guidelines, enquiries, vows and money, never managed to even vaguely create.
What more can we ask theatre to offer, than this kind of resolution?