In Review

An Audience with Jimmy Savile: new play 'riveting and revolting'

Alistair McGowan is 'extraordinary' as comic thug Savile, but does it work as drama?

A new play about Jimmy Savile has met with mixed reviews from critics, with many hailing its lead performance and others calling it "depressing". An Audience with Jimmy Savile, which opened to the London press last night, has faced doubts over the ethics of turning a story about disgraced DJ Savile into "entertainment".

Others wondered whether its writer, journalist Jonathan Maitland was tackling the subject too soon. And the Daily Mail reported that even its star Alistair McGowan, who plays Savile, admitted the part was giving him sleepless nights.

Set in 1991, the play at the Park Theatre draws on transcripts of interviews, witness statements and official reports about Savile's behaviour and crimes. It deals with its difficult subject matter by structuring the story around a This Is Your Life-style show format.

The play left many critics uneasy but impressed with its star.

Casting a likeable comedian in the title role was a smart move, says Paul Taylor in The Independent, "since it arouses expectations of a likeable comic impression and so heightens the chilling glimpses we get of the intimidating thug under the clown persona that so calculatedly harnessed 'the power of odd'".

Dominic Maxwell in The Times agrees. He says McGowan not only gives "a simply extraordinary performance", but the play as a whole does something that only theatre can do. "It places us in the presence of the man himself."

Maxwell says McGowan reminds us that Savile's "weirdo-of-the-people routine had a genuine allure, which helps us understand better how he got away with it all".

Yes, McGowan performs "a skin-crawling conjuring trick", agrees Marianka Swain on the ArtsDesk. But she is less convinced about the production, which she says prioritises "respectful exposition over satisfying drama".

In the Daily Telegraph, Ben Lawrence admits that McGowan gives a "riveting, revolting performance" which is "the best thing of the evening", but says the play doesn't work.

"The problem is that the play is all exposition, a detailed explanation of events (as far as we know them) that is completely lacking in drama," says Lawrence. It doesn't shed new light on the subject, he adds, and the result is "merely depressing".

One of Savile's victims, Dee Coles, agrees. She told the Daily Mirror she was disappointed by the play, and called it as a missed opportunity. "The play showed Savile to be bad and mean, but not evil. And believe me, he was evil," said Cole. "They missed the subtleties of Savile's behaviour, just like they missed them back then."

An Audience with Jimmy Savile runs until 11 July.

Jimmy Savile: new play questions how DJ 'groomed a nation'

07 April

Journalist and author Jonathan Maitland has claimed that "people are ready" for his forthcoming play about disgraced former DJ and paedophile Jimmy Savile. An Audience with Jimmy Savile is set to open in June and stars impressionist Alistair McGowan in the lead role.

The author admitted that some people have recoiled at the idea, but said its time to take a look at the affair, which has changed the way we look at abuse, reported The Guardian.

"It is one of the biggest stories of the last five years," said Maitland, speaking at the announcement of his play. "It has changed everything; it has changed the way we look at abuse, it has changed the way we prosecute it, it has changed attitudes towards it, the way we treat the survivors of it.”

He continued: “There is a real public interest question. What everyone wants to know – how on earth did this happen?

“There are two sides to Savile and, whether you like it or not, the unpalatable truth is he got to do what he did because, back then, he was entertaining and funny. He groomed the nation."

Maitland, a regular reporter on ITV's Tonight programme, said he chose to write a play because he believes that, in some cases, drama can be more effective in telling the true story than current affairs television.

His "reportage play" draws on transcripts of interviews, witness statements and official reports, but is not completely verbatim. "It is semi-reportage. Almost everything Savile says in the play he said in interviews or I'm satisfied he would have said it like that."

Maitland admits that some might think the play is exploitative, but defends the work by saying: "The victims were exploited by not being listened to and this play is giving them a voice."

The play comes just three years after the late DJ, who died on October 29 2011, and comedian's history of abusing young women and children in hospitals and schools throughout the 1970s and 1980s was exposed in a television documentary. The revelation prompted a major Scotland Yard investigation.

Not everyone though, is "ready" for the play it seems. One Twitter user wrote: "Yeah, why not make 'Fritzl: The Musical' while you're at it? Unbelievable", referring to Austrian man Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years to carry out sexual abuse.

Another commented: "A play to be put in theatres about Jimmy Savile's abuse? Is there nothing the entertainment business won't do to make money?"

But a lawyer acting on behalf of 178 of Savile's victims said she had met with the playwright and was satisfied the play had been produced in good taste, reported the Daily Mail.

"From what Jonathan has told me it will be extremely sensitive and will not in any way undermine the seriousness of the subject," said Liz Dux, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon.

"After meeting with him and discussing the project at length, I'm satisfied he will not cause offence to any of the victims. In fact, some have agreed to meet with him."

Before the play opens, Maitland will also hear the findings of the Dame Janet Smith review into abuse at the BBC, and said he will adjust any contentious parts.An Audience with Jimmy Savile is at Park Theatre, north London, 10 June-11 July.


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