A west side story
Casey Bennetto’s ‘Keating!’
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So, what is this? Casey Bennetto, the author of Keating! and one of the lead actors in it, says that it was first written as a "performance piece". The production at the Belvoir St Theatre is longer, with new songs and characters, and is a "show". Nowhere is it called a musical, though it is a completely song-driven piece of theatre. In effect, it's a revue, a very good one that at times seems to strive for something grander, a little like Keating himself; reality, a need for a few more strong songs, and the arrival of John Howard bring it all back to earth.
Keating! is performed in two halves, the first 30 minutes of each the strongest parts of the night. It begins with Terry Serio coming on as Bob Hawke, doing him in full leering Sir Les Patterson mode. It's a crude, thrusting portrait, drawn so to establish the high ground for the arrival of the star of the show. Ladies and gentlemen, the amazing Paul Keating! And what an entrance Mike McLeish, playing him, makes. Framed in a high doorway, leaning against a wall, leg up, immaculate in a black suit and tie, and young, his first line - "Hi, I'm Paul" - brings the house down.
Here's the kick. Bring Keating back from jowled middle age, keep the Italian wardrobe and the glint in the eye, and play him as part Rat Pack cool, part Jeff Koons geek. Let him dance and let him sing, just like all smartly dressed young men do in musicals. But instead of songs of love and happiness and dreams, have him sing policy: reconciliation, Asia, the possibilities of a republic. He's a song-and-dance man, but a song-and-dance man with ideas about the future of Australia. And it is Bennetto's genius to see this in Paul Keating: his innate smoothness and oddness, a perfect fit for a leading man, especially when played young. The dreams are more poignant, the downfall never far away.
The show covers Keating's takeover from Hawke, his seeing off of Hewson and Downer, a swerve to visit the Evans-Kernot affair, and the defeat by John Howard. This was a rich time in politics. All the leading participants were big, ideal for the satirist, perfect for a production interested in the bizarre and hungry to draw as many parallels as possible between the bump and grind of show business and the bump and grind of Canberra. The events of the period, though, still remain in relief, because this is an affectionate and at times almost camp study of Keating, and is at its best when it stays focused on him.
Mike McLeish gives him a youthfulness he never had in public life. Both Hawke and Howard are played as much older, or closer to their actual ages. Keating is given a generation-splitting zest, the young man of the story with a vision and the ability to use those shiny black shoes to do a bit of serious dancing. McLeish is stunning in the title role, and as long as he is on stage, the show does not flag. He has the confidence and flair to grab the central idea and run a mile with it. All the ruthlessness, energy and passion Keating had is there, ramped up under the spotlight. McLeish's singing is clear and not overpowering, and when it reaches or strains, it does so in the heat of the moment.
The parameters of the venue produce a much more intimate show than I was expecting. The cast is primarily three people - Bennetto, Serio and McLeish - the former two doubling in roles. The music is played live by a five-piece band, and the lighting and stage-setting are simple and effective. It's all ‘revue' dimensions, with built-in production ideas hinting at where it could go in a bigger space. The band is a revelation. They wander on with patrons still filing in, and drop into a funky groove based on Bob Marley's ‘I Shot the Sheriff'. Straight up, you can see that no one overplays; they are mostly young guys, and there is a verve and lightness to their playing not usually associated with the theatre. It's a good innovation to put a band of this kind into this situation, bypassing the usual piano or brass, and have their cool, versatile music fill the room.
Bennetto has, of course, got them for his songs. He also has bypassed a cliché or two: no Rocky Horror ‘rock' songs, or '50s and '60s Broadway pastiche. Instead, he's gone for an unusual blend of influences - for Australia, especially - that is more centred on ‘black' styles, and he pulls it off, by and large. So reggae, soul ballads, funk and a touch of rap are the musical backdrop, and none of the songs has the feel of bad cultural dipping. Bennetto uses the musical forms as departure points, adding Broadway or clichéd singer-songwriter lyrics to play one style off against the other. Throw in the fact that you've got ‘Paul Keating' going around singing this, and that's your show. (Also, rather neatly, the reappraisal of a lot of these musical genres, bossa nova included, began in the mid-'90s with the whole lounge-music explosion, so their inclusion in a production based on those very years is a good fit.)
What to do with John Howard? There's a question. He has to come on, and Terry Serio does a good job of it: his Howard is better than his Hawke. But his arrival and rather long song at the show's end pulls the production too far back towards the conventions of political theatre - conventions that are demolished whenever Keating is on stage. It could simply be McLeish's wattage, but the show belongs to Keating, and when it is fixed on him it dances and sings and smirks around all kinds of traps that politics and the theatre can fall into.
Originally, this was a one-hour show, and one can easily imagine the wow factor that production had. Centred on Keating, with McLeish on full blitz, it would have thrown the audience out into the foyer on a real high. Splitting the production in half means the brilliant idea of Keating! gets digested in the intermission and, despite a strong second-half start, it doesn't quite have the legs or the blockbuster songs to sustain itself to the end of its two hours. It fades. Of course, one can start to confuse the fate of the show with the fate of the man. He had to go. But while he was on, we were entertained.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.