Alistair McGowan has won critical praise for his performance in the controversial new play An Audience With Jimmy Savile.
One reviewer said McGowan was “riveting” and “revolting” in the role of the shamed DJ and sex offender.
Jonathan Maitland’s play at north London’s Park Theatre is the first drama to tackle the Savile scandal and has faced questions over its timing.
Maitland told the BBC the critical verdict had been “extraordinary”.
Speaking after the opening night, the investigative TV reporter and playwright said he had “never had any doubt” about the timing of the play.
“I’m a journalist and I’m not afraid of difficult subject matter,” he said.
“If the play is decent and enough people think it’s good, then the timing becomes irrelevant. The victims think it’s not too soon, it’s too late.”
Several of Savile’s victims have seen the play, with one telling Sky News about feeling “quite unwell” watching McGowan’s performance.
Maitland said he understood the play might be traumatic for Savile’s victims. “It’s difficult because I really don’t want to cause anybody distress, but they are adults and if they make the decision to go and see it, I respect that.
“They know it might be traumatic, but there’s undoubtedly a catharsis that they get out of it.”
Sources close to the production say there is interest in transferring the play to the West End. A percentage of the profits are going to the National Association for People Abused in Childhood.
Since his death in 2011, it has emerged Savile was one of the UK’s most prolific sexual predators.
Set in 1991, Maitland’s play is presented as a This Is Your Life-style show and draws on transcripts of interviews, witness statements and official reports. It features the parallel storyline of a woman who was raped by Savile as a child in hospital.
The Mail’s Quentin Letts admitted he had doubts about whether Savile was “fruitful material” for a theatre production.
“Having seen the show I unhesitatingly say this dramatisation is entirely justified — indeed, it is necessary,” he wrote in a four-star review.
“Here is drama taking a topical subject and asserting its right to comment pungently on an all-too-recent scandal. That is an entirely legitimate function for theatre.”
In a three-star review for Whatsonstage.com, Matt Trueman said: “McGowan lets you see Savile anew, as a set of traits and tics, not an eccentric or a ogre, and it’s that enacted impersonation that justifies Maitland turning journalism into drama.
“Is there a tendency to read everything he does as covering up for his paedophilia? Yes, and Brendan O’Hea’s production is weaker when it strays into fiction, where Lucy’s subplot can feel too generic, but this is an illuminating evening nonetheless.”
The Independent’s Paul Taylor said in his four-star review that the casting of McGowan as Savile was a “smart move”.
“It arouses expectations of a likeable comic impression and so heightens the chilling glimpses we get of the intimidating thug under the clown persona that so calculatedly harnessed ‘the power of odd’.
“The menacing assertiveness and the name-dropping megalomania in McGowan’s portrayal make is easier to understand how Savile got away with it.”
The play itself did not impress The Telegraph’s Ben Lawrence who awarded two stars. “The problem is that the play is all exposition, a detailed explanation of events (as far as we know them) that is completely lacking in drama,” he wrote.
“Initially it looked as if McGowan would stay close to the surface, but slowly he teases out a riveting, revolting performance that is by far the best thing of the evening.”
Marianka Swain, writing for The Arts Desk, said the play offered responsible reconstruction, but minimal drama.
“As Savile, McGowan performs a skin-crawling conjuring trick,” she observed. “We become sickeningly complicit as the skilled entertainer charms and disarms, until his underlying brutality and foul-mouthed misogyny are revealed, notably in a riveting verbatim police interview.”
While TheatreCat’s Libby Purves was struck by a scene in which Savile victim Lucy (Leah Whitaker) confronts Savile in his home.
“What happens next sends the whole audience into shock. And, I think, justifies what Maitland has done. Because for all the millions of words since, for all the smashing of his tombstone and the humiliation of his grand apologists, we’ll get no other closure.”
An Audience With Jimmy Savile is at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, until 11 July.