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Keating! The show goes on

The success story continues

Keating! The show goes on

By Gil Appleton

The total audience for Keating! had reached over 145,000 people around Australia by the time its third Sydney season ended just before Christmas, and the story continues. Keating! is undertaking another major tour in 2008, having already played Perth, and is currently at Melbourne's Comedy Theatre until 9 March. As well as returning to the scene of some earlier triumphs, this tour will also give audiences in Queensland, Adelaide and some regional centres a chance to see what the fuss was about (schedule below).

The show faces a tough challenge to sustain its momentum after the change of government. Continued success at the box office will confirm that its appeal lies more in its entertainment value than in its politics.

First staged in 2005 by a group of Melbourne musos led by writer/performer Casey Bennetto, the show was expanded by Neil Armfield for Company B, and has played in venues as diverse as Albany Town Hall in WA and the Sydney Opera House. At Sydney's Seymour Centre, the cavernous 800-seat York Theatre was filled to capacity night after night, often with standing room only.

How to explain the appeal of a show about a Labor Prime Minister who comprehensively lost to John Howard in 1996, and whom many viewed as suspiciously un-Australian in his antipathy to sport and fondness for Mahler, antique clocks and Zegna suits? Keating's many admirers in the arts community cannot alone account for the show's success - and to anyone under 25, the events it depicts are ancient history.

Yet audiences of all ages love it. Watching audience response, it's clear that they are having a lot of fun, not something generally associated with politics. Its extraordinary success has put Company B's finances on their firmest footing since the company's tentative start in the mid-1980s.

The show unquestionably surfed the zeitgeist during 2007. The hysterical audience reaction to John Howard, played by Terry Serio as a kind of paper doll equipped with an outfit for every occasion, hinted ominously that he was a Prime Minister whose time had come. Equally, Eddie Perfect's turn as "freaky" Alexander Downer in the inevitable fishnets confirmed a wide public perception of Downer as a buffoon singularly lacking in Foreign Ministerial gravitas.

Throughout last year, the show became as good a bellwether of impending political change as the consistently pro-ALP polls. Few attending could have doubted that change was in the air.

Oddly enough it is not primarily a political show. Its success lies in composer Casey Bennetto's musical parody (the story is developed in song rather than dialogue) built around a familiar plot - a handsome hero who can do no wrong and a grotesque villain who increasingly can do nothing right. The songs are a pastiche of every style of music that was in fashion during the Keating years, performed by a versatile group of musicians, key among whom is keyboard player and occasional actor Enio Pozzebon. There's a John Williamson-style ballad, The Light on the Hill, which could become a latterday ALP anthem. A CD of the show's music has quietly sold 5000 copies already.

PJ Keating himself has seen the show several times, and has been known to perform an accomplished soft-shoe shuffle at curtain call. He has praised his alter ego Mike McLeish as a new star. Bob Hawke (also played by Terry Serio in a weirdly effective segue from Hawke to Howard) has seen Keating!. His reaction not known.

McLeish is a major element in the show's success. It is difficult to imagine anyone else so effectively embodying the Keating persona - an elegant dandy with a scarifying repertoire of ocker abuse, much of it directly quoted from the former PM.

The Chasers cruelly suggested that after Keating The Musical the best we could expect might be Rudd the Musak. Following Rudd's performance on the apology to the stolen generation, however, they may have to revise this opinion; but there's no doubt that Keating! has done much to restore the former Prime Minister to what many see as his rightful place in history.

Keating! in 2008

Melbourne
Comedy Theatre, Strictly limited season from 13 February; Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com

Geelong
Geelong Performing Arts Centre, 11 - 15 March, ph: (03) 5225 1200 www.gpac.org.au

Adelaide
Her Majesty's Theatre, 3-19 April, ph: BASS 131 246 www.bass.net.au

Brisbane
Playhouse, QPAC, 28 April-10 May, ph: 136 246 www.qtix.com.au

Liverpool
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 13-18 May,

Newcastle
Civic Theatre, 23-31 May, ph: (02) 4929 1977 www.civicprecinctnewcastle.com.au

Canberra
Canberra Theatre Centre, 3-7 June

Gold Coast
Gold Coast Arts Centre, 17-21 June

Wollongong
Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, 24-28 June

Penrith
Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, 8-13 July

Belrose
Glen Street Theatre, 15-26 July

Sydney
Seymour Centre, 30 July-24 August, ph: (02) 9699 3444 or (02) 9351 7940

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