An Audience With Jimmy Savile
Cahoots Theatre Company in association with Park Theatre
From 10 June 2015 to 11 July 2015
Review by Alecia Marshall
When Alistair McGowan steps on to the stage, cigar positioned loosely between ringed fingers, turquoise tinfoil tracksuit contrasting to the stark white of his shoulder length hair, there is palpable unease.
Mastering his unique idiolect and grotesque posture, McGowan’s facsimile of serial sex offender Jimmy Savile is both unnerving and repellent—reactions that were both anticipated and interrogated long before the opening performance.
Are we ready to see such an unpalatable reproduction? Opinion has been divided. Rarely has a play aroused so much attention prior to its opening night, the once-quiet media now eager to question the intentions and integrity of journalist Jonathan Maitland’s unsettling examination of Britain’s ‘most loved man’.
And yet Maitland vehemently defends his work, chastising the BBC’s tokenistic efforts to erase Savile’s face from Top of the Pops footage, to bury years of Jim’ll Fix It— eradication is not the answer; Savile’s victims deserve to be heard.
Framed by a This is Your Life-style show, its host Michael Sterling (a watchable Graham Seed) fawns over Savile, a string of accolades repeated emphatically to an audience who wince rather than smile. Savile’s persistent innuendo—once sure to provoke peals of laughter from his adoring audience—is met with narrowed eyes and shaking heads. Retrospect is an uncomfortable possession: how could we not have known?
Interspersed is the story of Lucy (an amalgamation of several Savile victims) raped aged seven in a hospital television room. Rebutted by all in whom she confides—the ward nurse, her father, the newspapers, the police—Lucy’s scars are unable to heal. “It’s not a story”, she insists. “What happened to me is not a story.”
Brendan O’Hea’s direction is both cautious and tasteful whilst the cool set indicates the importance of this character-driven narrative. It is a production that holds you—and that is always commendable.
However, its desire to give voice to Savile’s victims is ironically the production's main flaw. Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as Lucy, but McGowan’s Savile is relentless, unarguably the main focus of this brief snapshot. It feels somehow dishonourable—we have, after all, heard his voice enough.
Lying, leering and licentious, McGowan presents Savile in all of his unsavoury glory. But Maitland’s script—some fictional, some pulled from recordings and testimonies—moves little further than this.
It succeeds in asking the right questions; but there are few revelations. Yes, it is sickening that our most revered institutions allowed Savile such autonomy, but with friends like Thatcher, the Vatican and the unwavering loyalty of the BBC, could it all have been prevented? Answers do not come.
And yet for its faults, the ultimate satisfaction of the production sits in Savile’s lack of control in his depiction. A man who exerted such control over his public image, his death allows Maitland to present Savile uncensored and unprotected. There is a touch of justice in that.