Praise the lord for the holy trinity of creative talent behind the Almeida’s new musical, Tammy Faye. Established playwright James Graham (Quiz, Best of Enemies) has written the book, the legendary Elton John has made the music, and Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears has added the lyrics. Bring in Spring Awakening director Rupert Goold’s to direct the whole thing and my God, it’s an absolute hoot.
Faye (a powerhouse performance by Katie Brayben) was an American televangelist, for those unfamiliar, who presented a Christian entertainment show alongside husband Jim Bakker (played with a warm quirkiness from Andrew Rannels) on the PTL satellite network, before it was embroiled in a shocking financial scandal. After all, their programme had brought a large, captive and impressionable audience, one whose faith could be easily exploited for capitalist and political gains. It’s another curious, cautionary tale from the world of broadcasting, not that far removed from Graham’s Best of Enemies (soon to have a West End run) in terms of ‘politics meets media’ and the vintage TV set designs – both from Bunny Christie.
As director, Goold gives us little time to truly consider the chaos of what’s unfolding in front of us – from a gay Jesus (whose scenes had me in hysterics for a good couple of minutes), to puppetry, Y-fronts and outrageous impersonations of religious figures (Steve John Shepherd is rather amusing as a cynical Archbishop of Canterbury). He chooses the pauses wisely for the maximum comedic impact in Graham’s whimsical script, constantly leaving us incredulous at the sheer pace at it all. In describing some of the exuberant antics to friends after the show, I realise Tammy Faye really has to be seen to be believed.
It’s probably why we warm to Faye and her charming cheesiness, because she too finds herself caught up in the sweeping, all-consuming industry, in a way where if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and it’s far easier to nod along gleefully as one is guided along a narrative. The tragedy of Tammy Faye is that her one true calling – her religion – was her downfall, but it was thanks to the gay community that she could rise again, as she hugged a HIV-positive male on live television.
Elton John’s toe-tapping music and Shears’ smart lyricism channels the camp all too well, balancing between the soaring, gospel choir-like vocals and the bouncy, piano-heavy melodies. At times it almost reads like a satire of the hyperbolic Broadway show.
“Light of the World” is one particularly catchy, off-beat number, sung by singers in glistening make-up and finely combed wigs. Against the backdrop of the Pride flag towards the end of the second act, the extravagance is fully embraced in the musical’s conclusion, but her ‘new calling’ as a gay icon feels under-developed and tacked on in comparison to the wider up and down of her career. Nevertheless, Faye is always called to serve and help others, right until the very end, and it is remarkably endearing.
Faye reaches out and connects with us in this wild and rowdy whirlwind. If you can embrace what it’s aiming for, then Tammy Faye is an uplifting spectacle worth believing in.
Tammy Faye is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 3 December.
Captioned, relaxed and audio described performances will take place on 8, 23, 26 November respectively.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Tammy Faye’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.