Front row on Friday night, we take our seats. The majority of the audience is fifty something men and women, jovial from the buzz the Fringe festival forces on you. They take their beers in plastic cups, laughing, talking loudly; just grateful they managed to get the time off work. Center stage there is an ominous, empty, red chair and an evening full of potential.
You walk out of ‘An Audience with Jimmy Saville’ with your mouth agape. This eighty-minute play showcased exclusively at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival has achieved the almighty task of leaving its viewers feeling utterly disgusted and simultaneously impressed. If you ever wanted to show your friends a piece of theater that dances incredibly close to the line of controversy, then take them to this.
The play is split into two narratives that weave in and out of each other. The first is set up in the format of a This is Your Life game-show. Jimmy Savile, who is played eerily well by Alastair Macgowan, is being interviewed by a typical 80’s TV host, played by Graham Seed. We follow his success as charity worker and are reminded of all the things Jimmy Savile has done to help the community, repeatedly mentioning how he raised ‘forty million pounds’ for charity. Macgowan is irrestistable.
He perfectly encapsulates the charm that Savile had before he become the notorious peadophile that he is known as today. He looks directly as each audience member, laughing cheekily, tapping his faux cigar and making you momentarily forget why you paid sixteen pounds for a ticket. This is the role of Macgowan’s career. It is very smart to have a professional impersonator attempt the first Jimmy Savile play, and my god, does he do it well. Macgowan has studied clearly the 80’s DJ in obsessive detail. His little mannerisms that you have forgotten, his inflection on certain words and how he sits legs wide open on chairs. These come screaming back to you in a new high definition detail.
The second storyline is Lucy’s, played by Leah Witaker. A young woman searching for a sense of justice as she recalls how she was abused by Savile when she was 12 years old. Her own father doesn’t believe her, dismissing her claims as some sort of mental illness. As these two stories unfold, Lucy eventually confronts Savile on a beach in his vulgar short shorts. She asks him to accept what he has done to her, but he slaps her instead and most realistically, carries on with the rest of his life. He calls her a ‘whore wanting money.’ He reminds her how much money he has raised for charity and that effectively, he can do whatever he wants. But Lucy is one of the strong ones, as she recounts the vicious tale of how Savile raped her when she was in hospital, you hear the words of a real person coming out her mouth and this no longer becomes some piece of theatre, some elusive character made up for your entertainment, these are real women still very much affected. This isn’t a story that attempts to justify his actions but reminds us that he was a real person who somehow managed to skirt around the rules.
The most disturbing element of the piece is how Savile got away with his ill doings. The question is why? When he is seen in his dressing room with a young girl and the stage manager walks in on them, played by Charlotte Page, she is horrified by what she has seen. When she confronts other people about it, their defense is that it is ‘just Jimmy.’
His celebrity status allowed it to be impossible for him to do any wrong. Of course to us now, this sounds barbaric, but the celebrity mould has changed significantly in the last thirty years and watching this play, you can’t helping thinking this is a good thing.
The eighty intense minutes concludes with the announcement that Savile was found ‘dead in his bed with his fingers crossed.’ Lucy and her father, played by Robert Perkins, walk slowly to each other in a long awaited embrace. As more and more people come forward with their own stories of abuse, Savile’s is the strongest defense. Silence. The plastic cups now empty of their contents click awkwardly in hands of each audience member. The time for applause leaves people not knowing whether to praise such a convincing performance or reprimand the subject matter.
Words: Olivia Topley.