OK, so sometimes we book for things at the Edinburgh Fringe that we probably could see at home, but it’s hard to resist the lure of an hour in the company of Alistair McGowan, with his 12th Impressions show, on at the Debating Hall, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Teviot Row House, at 18:00 on Wednesday 24th. This is what it says on the website: “One of Britain’s most celebrated impressionists (The Big Impression, Live at the Apollo, Tonight at the Palladium) returns to Edinburgh for a twelfth year, with an hour of unfeasibly accurate impersonations. Alistair McGowan will cover some of the biggest names and most recognisable voices in sport, entertainment and politics including Wimbledon champion and new dad Andy Murray, comedian John Bishop and football’s man of the moment Harry Kane, as well as delivering brand-new comedy in his own voice. Warning: May contain puns.”
Do we actually know what Harry Kane sounds like? I’m sure I’ll find out. I think an hour of great comedy is pretty much guaranteed. Check back about 7.15 to see if I was right and by then the preview blog for our next show should be available to read too.
Well that gave a new meaning to the phrase “packed house”. Wedged into the most minuscule seats fighting for air – no wonder a poor lady in our row had to leave due to a panic attack. Anyway – Alistair McGowan does what he does best – fantastic impressions woven into a very funny sequence. I thought he unnecessarily antagonised some parts of the audience by describing our average age as 72 – there were some gasps of offence! Very entertaining and enjoyable comedy fare.
Like most people I would imagine, when I first heard that they were producing a play about Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, it sounded to me like the height of tastelessness. We’ve all had our individual reactions to the Savile affair, from “I never liked him” and “I always liked him” to “he did all that charity work just to cover up his evil” and “but he did all that charity work, can he be that evil”; from “I never would have believed it” to “I always knew it” and a whole host of other reactions besides.
I also originally thought that taking on the role would be a kiss of death to Alistair McGowan’s career. It would have to be a superbly written and produced play to take the subject matter seriously and creatively enough not to cause any additional offence, and indeed, hopefully, to cast new light on it. Even then I thought there might be some kind of backlash. However, I think it was Mrs Chrisparkle who suggested we should see it because, after all’s said and done, it sounds utterly intriguing. It’s also on at the Park theatre, in Finsbury Park, which we hadn’t yet visited. So we booked.
Being brought up in Wendover, near Aylesbury, Jimmy Savile was a fairly familiar sight in the 70s and 80s in our neck of the woods. He’d often go jogging the couple of miles from Stoke Mandeville to Wendover and back again, although he never came into the pub that my parents ran. After the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle retired, she started volunteering at the Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre. As a result she frequently saw him there. I don’t think she had any knowledge of what he was getting up to, and although she found it amusing working side by side with a celebrity, and he used to refer to her as “My friend Violet”, she didn’t like him very much. On one occasion when she felt the supervisors had been hard on her for something she had or hadn’t done – I can’t remember the details – she appealed to him to intervene but he refused to take her side. Sadly the Dowager has suffered from dementia for the last eight years, so she doesn’t know what scandal was going on all around her – I’d have loved to have talked to her about it in light of the recent revelations.
Like most people of my age, I grew up with Savile on the radio and TV. I was one of those youngsters who really liked him. I particularly used to look forward to his Double Top Ten Show on Radio 1 on Sunday lunchtimes, and I have no doubt he was a gifted broadcaster. I wasn’t too much enamoured with Jim’ll Fix It – it was ok, but a bit “goody-two-shoes” for my taste. Retrospectively, that’s ironic, isn’t it? By the time he was in his 80s he certainly looked like a parody of himself. He seemed generally grumpier – and vainer – but yes, when he died, I felt a pang of sorrow.
I’m dwelling on those memories and personal thoughts because that’s precisely what you have to juggle with when you watch Jonathan Maitland’s Audience with Jimmy Savile. From my side perch in Row A of the circle at the Park 200 (fantastic view by the way) it was equally fascinating to witness the audience’s ongoing reactions to the play as it was to watch the play itself. Savile was, and as a spectre still is, loathsome, evil, calculating, manipulative, cruel, heartless, vicious; in fact, if you think of any adjective with negative overtones, he probably falls into that category. So to watch an audience, watching a play, where a much-loved TV presenter is falling over himself with niceness, to present a tribute programme to that wretch, is fairly strenuous on the nausea reflux. When Savile comes out with quips and jokes, those trademark catchphrases and his avuncular (shudder) approaches to any “young ladies” in the audience, where once they would have been greeted with polite and/or knowing titters, the Park audience watch him in stony silence, arms crossed, mouths rooted in downturned disapproval. As you can imagine, Alistair McGowan’s impersonation of Savile is top notch quality, which makes his direct looks and asides to the audience even more uncomfortable to deal with. He almost challenges some audience members to react; they don’t; he turns away and carries on with his speech; the audience member feels the heat is off and they smile guiltily to their companions. It’s a fascinating study of an audience under pressure.
At 85 minutes, with no interval, this play is one of the few instances when I think having no interval is a good thing. You don’t want the audience discussing it amongst themselves half-time and openly deciding how to deal with it; this is challenging, go-it-alone audience territory. The play takes the structure of one of those flattering and adulatory TV endurance tests, “An Audience With….” I’m sure you’ve seen them. An Audience with some ageing star beyond their best but still with a reasonably fond personal following, where they meet old friends and acquaintances, and other stars “in the bizness”, who say hideously nice things about their target. In Jonathan Maitland’s take on this format, as the show (within a show) progresses, you get to realise first-hand that this eccentric, charitable and amusing Sir Jimmy, OBE, is in fact a bully, an abuser of young women, violent in both deed and word, and has dubious friends to say the least. Scenes of this “accolade” show are interspersed with the developing story of Lucy, raped by Savile whilst she was in hospital at the age of 12. You see her battling to convince her father that her allegations are true, approaching a newspaper editor with her story, and his subsequent dealings with Savile; coping with an unwilling police force who are more keen to point out that she will be ripped apart in court than to consider the victim or the crime itself; and finally confronting Savile with the truth about what he did.
I had read reviews before seeing the play that suggested that opinions were divided as to the play itself. Some thought it was challenging and well written, others thought it was completely lacking in drama. Personally, I thought it was oozing with drama from the start. At the beginning you have Savile, in control, in demand, in excelsis almost, contrasted with Lucy, unable to finish sentences without crying. By the end, Lucy is in control, challenging Savile directly, firmly and assertively making her point; whereas we’ve seen Savile decline, both physically and reputatively, through his associations, his dressing-room activities, his argumentative and defensive interviews, and his final visible lack of control. The play is very nicely balanced, cunningly written to reflect Savile’s own cunningly constructed answers to difficult questions, and with a final scene that Mrs C found extremely moving.
At the heart of the play is Alistair McGowan’s performance – a fantastic impersonation, but never played for laughs; this is serious drama and Mr McGowan gives us Savile’s voice saying the kind of things we never heard him say in real life. So this is not mere impersonation but a full characterisation of an evil man, barely concealing his evil from an adoring public. I really enjoyed Mr McGowan’s performance – after the initial shock (for there definitely is one) of seeing Savile almost alive again, I found myself smiling at Mr McGowan’s portrayal of his eccentricities because they are cleverly done and they do bring you back to a time when one used to find Savile funny. I felt as though I ought to stop smiling, in honour of those people whom he abused. But that’s one of the tricky things about challenging drama – you never quite know how you’re going to react until you’re actually confronted with it. In my defence, I also found his portrayal quite disgusting too – the tacky shell suit, the unkempt straggly hair; and there’s a final scene where he’s removed his track suit bottoms and is just in a pair of short shorts, which goes to emphasise the lascivious threat he could pose to anyone weaker than himself. Thoroughly unpleasant – but superbly well done.
Leah Whitaker gives a very strong and heartbreaking performance as Lucy, picking up the pieces of a ruined life, and permanently running aground each time she seems to get closer to justice. I found her compelling and emotional, a very thoughtfully and honestly portrayed representation of a typical Savile victim, if there is such a thing. Robert Perkins was excellent in many of the supporting roles; I particularly liked him as the Newspaper Editor (where he reminded me slightly of Max Clifford, which is bizarre in itself), and as Savile’s slimy pal Ray Teret, lending great credibility to the old saying about how you can judge a person’s character by the company they keep. Charlotte Page also gave great support, especially as Alice, the researcher who’s also the recipient of Savile’s odious attention, D S Goldstein where she tries her hardest to be supportive to Lucy but also has to make her face unwelcome facts; and as Clare, the Stoke Mandeville representative, unctuously blinded by Savile’s celebrity, almost eerily serenading him with a quick blast of the Jim’ll Fix It theme. The final member of the cast is the splendid Graham Seed, as Savile’s TV inquisitor Michael Sterling, more concerned about how he himself will look on camera than posing any really searching questions to Savile.
There’s no doubt this is an uncomfortable and challenging play to watch, but it really helps you, the audience member, come to terms with how you feel about Savile; and you definitely come out of the theatre with a greater appreciation of the personal tragedies he caused and the way he manipulated the media and society to get what he wanted. Strangely enjoyable, and for all the right reasons. Plus Mrs C and I are delighted to have discovered the Park theatre, and can’t wait for another excuse to go!
Perhaps one’s first reaction to the prospect of seeing a production of Pygmalion might be slightly jaded. That old play? My Fair Lady without the songs? Does it have any relevance today? Haven’t I seen it many times before? Those were among my sneaking suspicions before curtain up last Saturday afternoon. But this is a fresh, funny and very relevant production, born at the Theatre Royal Bath, that charmed and chuckled its way through two and half hours of 100 year old comedy, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both loved it.
You know the plot– Colonel Pickering bets that Professor Higgins can’t transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle from little cockney sparrer to eloquent beauty, the test being that no one suspects her true origins and identity at the ambassador’s garden party. Higgins works hard, Eliza works hard; he wins the bet, but only congratulates himself (and Pickering of course) on his own amazingness rather than recognising Eliza’s contribution and self-improvement; believing that he thinks nothing of her, she leaves. It doesn’t sound like that much of a story put that way. But Shaw created some fantastic characters, not only in Higgins and Eliza, but also Eliza’s dustman dad, and the sympathetic and extremely wise Mrs Higgins. The interplay between these characters still sparks off terrific comedy as well as thoughtful, emotional drama.
For instance, Act Three, where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to one of Mrs H’s “At Home”s, still has your toes tingling with its examination of class distinction and seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Although the word “bloody” no longer has the impact it did in 1912, you still get a frisson of naughtiness when Eliza exits with it triumphantly on her lips. The whole “Gin was Mother’s milk to her” and “what I say is, them that pinched it done her in” sequence is so beautifully constructed to juxtapose perfect enunciation with gutter language that its enormous powers to surprise and delight remain undiminished. I can still remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle reciting this speech word perfect, such was its notoriety early in the 20th century. This scene is performed beautifully, and had the audience in hysterics. Very charmingly, during a short pause in this scene, you could hear a young child in the audience – who had been very well behaved to that point – unable to contain herself as she laughed out loud “this is SO funny!” The rest of the audience laughed back in appreciation. It was a great reminder that these famous and regularly performed plays are always new to someone.
Casting Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins is a stroke of genius. When I think of Higgins I think of Rex Harrison and then maybe some other younger versions of the same characterisation. But Mr McGowan is unmistakably Mr McGowan; and although he doesn’t stray into the impersonation field, it does mean he puts on some very good cockney voices when he’s throwing back people’s words at them, as he annotates their speech patterns at Covent Garden in the rain. It becomes a slightly “in-joke” – everyone knows he’s Alistair McGowan, renowned for his funny voices, and there he is doing them, but it’s all part of the play. But it’s not only the voices that impress, it’s his mannerisms and bearing. I’ve always thought of him as being a bit of a scruffy urchin, with a very bendy physicality to him which allows him to impersonate others so well. Here he uses that informality to great effect, coming across much more as an errant schoolboy than as an esteemed professor. When he’s under pressure, he hops from side to side, jiggles his hands in his pockets, can’t make eye contact with his mum – most unlike Rex Harrison. It’s a very different reading of the role from the norm – and it works really well.
Rachel Barry is a very fine Eliza, both as flower girl standing up to the toffs, and as heartbroken lady dealing with the fall-out of the wretched professor’s bet. Her comic timing is immaculate in the “At Home” scene, and her resilience at the end, when faced with her understanding of the truth, is admirable. Jamie Foreman steals every scene he is in as Doolittle, his huge cockney brashness wheedling to get some cash out of Higgins as he tries to “sell” Eliza, and then dismally accepting his new found richesse, which sees him ascend into the grand surroundings of Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Rula Lenska gives a dignified, but twinkling-in-the-eye performance as Mrs H, accepting no nonsense from her disappointing son but trying to carry on with the established behaviour expected of her. There’s also excellent support from Charlotte Page as the rather scary but essentially kind Mrs Pearce, Anna O’Grady as the somewhat petulant but very modern Clara, Jane Lambert as a rather tragic Mrs Eynsford-Hill, confessing her relative poverty with embarrassment whilst still keeping up appearances with the trappings of wealth, and Lewis Collier as a splendidly nincompoop Freddy, laughing at anything and everything.
David Grindley’s straightforward production allows Shaw’s text to do all the talking and proves that it still has a lot to say about class and relationships. Lots of fun, and definitely worth catching, if you can get to Canterbury this week, with Plymouth and Norwich still to come.