Extraordinary man. Extraordinary acts. Extraordinarily brave both of Jez Bond to commission it for the Park Theatre and Alistair McGowan to lend his immaculate skills as an impressionist to the portrayal of a beast.

For journalist-turned-playwright Jonathan Maitland it’s second-time-around for staging a living portrait of a character monstered by the popular press, following his excellent Dead Sheep which also featured a first-rate impressionist, Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon, as Mrs Thatcher. What’s next, John Culshaw as Sepp Blatter?

Maitland’s ear for documentary dialogue is faultless and gives the play an urgent, heightened credibility but proves slightly self-defeating because the lengthy exposition is already known from news and TV analysis of the Savile cases. For a perp whose wrongdoing affected so many lives, it’s undermining to roll all his victims into a composite portrayal, and Leah Whitaker‘s all-purpose wounded Lucy feels hollow.

Staged as a chat-show, host Graham Seed is just one free Parker Pen shy of the full Michael Parkinson and again could use an additional TV executive character to further debate the dilemmas broadcasters wrestled when considering whether to confront Savage. Maitland is very good though at evoking the period, and we sense the danger of accusing a beloved celebrity whose friends included the Prime Minister and heir to the throne as well as a degree of national support that makes Jeremy Clarkson look like a leper. The piece is as even-handed as hindsight allows in mentioning the £40 million Jimmy raised for charities, the hospitals he rescued from closure, and the lives he saved by fronting the ‘clunk-click’ seat-belt campaign.

McGowan’s performance is mesmerising: he convinces both as the adulation-junkie clown who played up his own ‘celebration of odd’ quirkiness and gradually releases a seditious controlling and vicious side which supports his ultimate guilt. And when he’s angry, or creepy, you can feel it. His scathing condemnation of his victims as money-grubbing scroungers or immoral sluts is chilling, especially on the same day it’s reported Rolf Harris has composed those exact same feelings into a song.

The severity of the crimes means the audience can’t relax and enjoy more of the humour for fear of being seen to be approving Savile himself, so completely does the actor inhabit his character as snugly as his turquoise lurex shell suit. Nowhere is this more awkward than at the curtain call where, if he wants the ovation he truly deserves, McGowan should appear in a dressing gown and without the wig.

 

a version of this review appears on Londonist.com