'An Audience with Jimmy Savile': Theater Review

Courtesy of Cahoots Theatre Company
'An Audience With Jimmy Savile'
A vivid but unrevealing portrait of a sociopathic monster with powerful friends

British journalist-turned-dramatist Jonathan Maitland brings celebrity sex criminal Jimmy Savile back from the dead to answer for his crimes.

How do you portray a monstrous real-life predatory pedophile on stage, especially one with hundreds of victims who may find his public resurrection traumatizing? Such is the dilemma faced by journalist-turned-playwright Jonathan Maitland and director Brendan O'Hea in An Audience With Jimmy Savile, their psychological post-mortem on the hugely popular BBC television star and charity campaigner who will be remembered by history as Britain's most prolific sex criminal.

So how do you bring a non-fiction Freddie Krueger back to life? Very carefully, it seems, with a minimum of dramatic invention or lurid speculation. A chunk of any profit the play makes is also going to sexual abuse charities, which should mollify most critics. But far from being exploitative or sensational, An Audience With Jimmy Savile is almost too cautious in its sober treatment of potentially prurient material. The newsworthy topic will ensure healthy seat sales for this short summer run, though non-Brits who did not grow up with Savile as a TV fixture will miss much of the cultural context.

A shocking catalogue of abuse stretching back 60 years, Savile's sordid track record as a serial rapist only came to light after his death in 2011, though unsavory rumors had dogged him for decades. He hid in plain sight, shielding his audacious crimes with high-profile charity work, expensive lawyers and powerful friends. Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer adopted him as an unofficial marriage counselor, while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hailed him as a national treasure, awarding him a knighthood.

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Meanwhile, Savile committed countless sexual assaults on hundreds of victims, many of them sick or unconscious, more than three-quarters of them minors, some as young as five. Dozens complained to parents, police, media or medical staff. All were ignored or silenced. Escaping justice in his lifetime, Savile's death triggered a flood of shock revelations, ongoing investigations and shameful national soul-searching. How did he get away with it for all those years? Maitland's play attempts to answer that question.

At first glance, the casting of Scottish comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan as Savile may seem problematic. A regular on U.K. radio and television, McGowan has long been known for his note-perfect mimicry of the late entertainer's distinctive vocal mannerisms and broad Yorkshire accent. He even paid posthumous tribute to Savile in 2011, before his crimes came to light.

Yet despite his natural levity and likability, McGowan succeeds in teasing out the menace and malice in Savile without making him into a cartoon ogre. Garbed in the late entertainer's flashy signature uniform of brightly hued sportswear, garish gold jewelry and straggly white mane, with a fat cigar perpetually lodged between his teeth, McGowan radiates the indestructible confidence of a charming sociopath who can compare himself to Martin Luther King or Jesus without irony. Like Samuel Beckett, O'Hea understands that comedians often have a dark hinterland that serves serious drama well. As Maitland puts it, Savile was “"the clown who turned out to be a rapist".”

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McGowan's performance is the strongest element in an otherwise prosaic play. Taking place on a bare stage with minimal props and a small ensemble cast, the action flips between a fictionalized TV tribute to Savile and snapshots of the litigious, manipulative, mendacious, misogynistic bully he was in private. Maitland teasingly hints that he may also have been complicit in murder, but leaves this loose end hanging, which seems unusually sloppy for a seasoned investigative journalist.

Leah Whitaker co-stars as Lucy, a courageous but colorless composite character based on several of Savile's real victims. Raped at the age of 12, Lucy eventually takes her story to the media and police. But both are neutralized by Savile, who routinely dismisses his accusers as money-grubbing blackmailers, while threatening costly legal retaliation. "His false outweighs my true," says Lucy ruefully, paraphrasing Shakespeare to explain why so many of Savile's victims were simply ignored.

Maitland calls his play "dramatized journalism," since it is woven with real quotes from Savile and his victims, including an almost verbatim account of a police interview conducted in 2009.  History has given many of these apparently throwaway lines a sinister edge, which the play exploits for maximum dramatic irony. One example: a public letter of endorsement from Prince Charles tells Savile, "no one will ever know the full extent of what you did for this country."

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An Audience With Jimmy Savile fingers some familiar targets for the late broadcaster's crimes, from incompetent police to complicit BBC colleagues to cozy power cliques in the upper ranks of British society. Fair comment, but hardly news to anyone who has followed this unfolding scandal in real time. During a final showdown with Lucy, a deranged Savile also invokes the devout Catholic faith which allows him to whitewash his multitude of sins with charity work.

Maitland could have explored this rich psychological context more. A little artistic embroidery of real events in the vein of Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Audience) might have given his drama extra weight and longevity, instead of fleeting currency as lightly fictionalized reportage. McGowan's compellingly grotesque performance is worth the ticket price, but it sits within a disappointingly pedestrian play, essentially summarizing the Savile case so far with too few fresh insights or imaginative angles.

Park Theatre, London (runs through July 11)
Cast: Alistair McGowan, Leah Whitaker, Charlotte Page, Robert Perkins, Graham Seed
Director: Brendan O'Hea
Playwright: Jonathan Maitland
Set designer: Lone Schacksen
Lighting designer: David Howe
Music & sound designer: Tristan Parkes
Costume supervisor: Lisa Aitken
Presented by Cahoots Theatre Company, in association with Park Theatre

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