Ho hum. Bit icky. Not bad. Hardly dazzling. The lukewarm response to An Audience With Jimmy Savile has astonished me. This is the best docudrama I’ve seen on stage. From the early 1970s, Britain swooned before Savile. Marketing pollsters found him the country’s best-loved celeb (bar the Queen Mum). He enforced his influence by winning over several establishments at once, the royals, the Beeb, the NHS, the media, the charity sector, Westminster. Evidence of his criminality existed but it never affected his reputation. He’s the nearest we’ve come to Hitler.
The show takes the format of a TV biography which is intercut with scenes from Savile’s early life and testimony from his victims. Alistair McGowan’s ownership of Savile’s persona is astounding. The gestures, the mannerisms, the voice and the accent have been studied and replicated with meticulous precision. Jonathan Maitland’s script performs a similar job with Savile’s distinctive mix of self-deprecating gags and folksy rhetoric. The man we first meet isn’t a louche and slippery pervert but a consummate entertainer. We’ve forgotten just how attractive he was. His easy wit and rough-diamond charm made him not merely appealing but also irresistible.
Enter the first victim. Now an adult, she recalls being befriended by Savile as he roamed Stoke Mandeville Hospital wearing a porter’s uniform, which he knew gave him an air of authority. He quizzed the little girl about her condition and lured her into the TV room where he assaulted her. She didn’t understand she was being raped because she was only 12. That night she wrote ‘Your porter hurt me’ on a page torn from a Bible, which she delivered to the hospital’s internal mail service. Nothing was done. Savile was more than a one-man molestation squad. He was deeply weird. He worshipped his mother (‘the duchess’) and he liked to snuggle up to elderly female patients as they slept. The nurses, accustomed to this foible, used to shoo him out of the ward with an indulgent warning. ‘Now, now, Jimmy.’ That was the sternest reproof he ever received.
The police were sufficiently concerned to include Savile, briefly, in the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry. But he never faced charges. This play explains why. Detectives confront him at home with a string of allegations which he rebuffs using a well-rehearsed confection of vanity and menace.
First he reels off a list of potentates who admire him. Then he likens his predicament to that of Gandhi and Jesus, both saints like himself, who were defamed by envious small fry. He denounces his victims as frustrated groupies (‘slags’), motivated by sexual jealousy and avarice. He vows that if he appears in court he will commission the nastiest legal minds in the land to humiliate his accusers in public. Finally he claims that his downfall will destroy Stoke Mandeville Hospital which subsists entirely on his fund-raising energies. What a masterstroke of hypocritical manipulation to use his prey as a human shield to protect him from exposure and to secure further years of sexual abuse. Machiavelli had nothing on Savile. This disturbing and fascinating play has become a word-of-mouth hit. And it must have gone beep on the radar systems of West End producers. But there’s a snag. It’s hardly a ‘great night out’. As an anniversary treat it’s a non-starter. Coach parties from the shires? Forget it. Americans? Ditto. My advice is, see it here.
Another day another Mamet knock-off. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play is a ghetto comedy that features needy losers creating an ersatz family from their man-on-man relationships. Exactly like American Buffalo (Wyndham’s) and The Red Lion (Dorfman). What’s new here is that the chums, Jackie and Ralph, are part of a rehab programme. Jackie is a lovable dimwit released from prison and battling the temptations of powders and liquor. His sponsor, pompous Ralph, has himself served a lengthy novitiate under an addict-turned-ascetic in order to qualify as an expert in the catechism of self-denial. It’s a modern version of the Catholic church and Adly Guirgis tackles it in a spirit of affectionate mockery. Jackie and Ralph have hot girlfriends and both are tempted to pick the other man’s flowers. One succeeds, the other fails, and as these complexities work themselves out they seek comfort in their enduring friendship. The script is funny but the language is relentlessly coarse and ultimately dispiriting. If you take teenagers to this show you’ll find it embarrassing. So will they.
Ricardo Chavira is captivating as Jackie, the thick, well-meaning hunk, but the top honours go to Yul Vazquez (Cousin Julio). He first appears on stage as a bendy misfit carrying a tray of scented beers but he develops into a steely thug with a tasty line in intimidating patter. Great performance. The audience, whose enthusiasm far exceeded mine, applauded at the close of each scene. That means one thing. A hit.