Saturday 13th June 2015, matinée
Some have asked if the Park Theatre‘s new production of Jonathan Maitland’s play ‘An Audience with Jimmy Savile’ is too soon. We say it’s not soon enough. It’s probably about fifty years too late. An exploration of how Jimmy Savile groomed the nation, and recruited the establishment as an accessory to his crimes, this play attempts to give him the trial he never had, and goes some way to redressing the injustice of a perpetrator dying before he has had to face judge and jury. The title is well-chosen – ‘audience’ implies power and influence as well as popularity, and the format incorporates plenty of fawning and self-congratulatory egotism. At the same time, the public figure is gradually dismantled by the narrative of a single victim and her tireless attempts to be heard and believed about what happened to her as a twelve-year-old child, culminating in a fictional confrontation which finally gives her the upper hand.
This format is surprisingly powerful. However much you might think you know about Savile, it’s no substitute to being confronted with the man himself (or as near as we can get), and watching a series of establishment figures praise, support and make excuses for him, whether it’s the Police, the BBC, the NHS or even the Catholic church. It is the casting of Alistair McGowan that is the key to this play’s success. Many actors who play real people make a distinction between ‘doing an impersonation’ of the person and portraying them in a dramatic setting. In this case though, an impression is exactly what is needed. McGowan expertly brings Savile into the room with a mesmerising clarity of performance. He is not here to ‘get inside’ Savile’s mind – it’s clear from the constant obfuscation of the man’s responses that this is a distant dream. You could almost say Savile is a ‘personality’ constructed entirely around an inner emptiness, and the play shows how he did it. But the vital purpose is not for us to understand or ’empathise’ with him, but to see him in a new light and feel the extreme discomfort of witnessing the humour and catchphrases spill out of the world of entertainment into the darker territory of police interviews and the sickening use of religion to justify his actions. Apart from one notable incident, all this is delivered in the same showbiz style, ‘the power of odd’ as Savile calls it. We’ll never hear the phrase ‘Jim’ll fix it’ in the same way again, now that we know how many other things and people he ‘fixed’ in order to avoid justice for so long.
No-one can upstage Savile of course, but the supporting cast of four do an excellent job of weaving the stories of the ordinary people around him – Graham Seed is suitably oily as the supine TV host, Leah Whitaker has us rooting for her with her spirited portrayal of a young mother wanting to be believed, while Charlotte Page and Robert Perkins effortlessly fill in a full cast of characters from police officers and journalists to co-conspirators.
This is his second play for the theatre, and Jonathan Maitland is clearly not afraid of a challenge. A subject so full of recent controversy, highly sensitive events, and a real-life hate-figure as the main character is not an easy sell. But he has succeeded in his aim of writing a play that will not let us forget what happened. He creates discomfort without sensationalising events, and quietly allows us to face the horrific implications, as Savile steadily condemns himself with his own words and actions. At ninety minutes, this is not an in-depth exploration, but it is quite long enough to be in the presence of a monster.