The headline names for this brand new musical are clearly its songwriters: Jake Shears from The Scissor Sisters and some guy called Elton John.
But though they’ve whipped up a batch of very decent songs – that aspire to sound like ’70s Elton John, and largely succeed – it feels like ‘Tammy Faye’ is very much the creation of playwright James Graham, who wrote the book.
Long the undisputed king of British political theatre, ‘Tammy Faye’ is extremely recognisable as his work, and is perhaps best seen as a sort of irreverent negative to his most recent West End hit ‘Best of Enemies’. Where that delved forensically into the psychosis of America’s revolutionary ’60s, ‘Tammy Faye’ examines the resurgent evangelical scene of the country’s ’70s with the same gleefully geeky eye for detail, albeit with an altogether cheerier, camper tone.
It centres on Katie Brayben’s eponymous heroine, a larger-than-life real figure whose big heart and LGBT friendliness marked her out as very different to the fire and brimstone ultraconservatives that constituted her peers, as most disconcertingly embodied here by Zubin Varla’s joyless, controlling Jerry Falwell.
What ‘Anchorman’ is to ‘70s news anchors, ‘Tammy Faye’ is to ‘70s evangelicals.
In Rupert Goold’s light, nimble production we first meet Brayben’s Faye at the end of her life, just as she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. The story then bounds back in time to meet her and her boy scout-like husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Rannells), as wet behind-the-ears young things, touring an impossibly naff Christian puppet show. By coincidence, it comes to the attention of American media tycoon Ted Turner, who decides to take a chance on the Bakkers and give them their own channel. Despite a shaky start, it becomes an enormous hit after Tammy breaks out of her meek Christian wife role and starts addressing the audience directly.
What ‘Anchorman’ is to ‘70s and ‘80s news anchors, ‘Tammy Faye’ often is to ‘70s and ‘80s evangelicals. It paints a pastel and beige picture of gauche small-town oddballs blithely building an empire that they’re ill-equipped to handle as more and more money floods in, and their gruff, resentful rivals begin to sharpen their knives.
Graham’s book is unabashedly celebratory of Faye as a compassionate alternative to the powerful-hungry male televangelists, who we see go on to forge a cynical pact with Steve John Shepherd’s ambitious Ronald Reagan. But it’s also the first big biographical musical I’ve seen since ‘Hamilton’ where the writer was clearly allowed a free hand, and not simply forced into writing a hagiography by the subject’s estate. Graham’s Faye is a deeply flawed woman who – spoiler alert – ends up in Purgatory rather than heading straight to the Good Place. But as much as her failings are acknowledged, she’s clutched fiercely to the show’s chest for her instinctive championing of LGBTQ+ folk: the scene that details her interview with a gay pastor with AIDS is hugely moving. Sure, her head was turned by money. But she was an infinitely better Christian and human than the awful Falwell. I’m not sure how accurate every detail is (there’s surely a fair amount of simplification involved). But Graham’s eye for period quirk is unmatched, and as ever with him we do actually learn something.
John and Shears are not just along for the ride. In the goofier first half their songs have to set the tone: ‘If Only Love’ is a catchy, plaintive ballad that underscores the fact the Bakkers start out with a genuine love for each other, while ‘PTL TV Theme’ and ‘He’s Inside Me’ are daft glam-era Elton John pastiches that absolutely hit the spot in terms of underscoring the essential silliness of the high televangelist era. (There’s also a glorious cheeky interpolation of ‘Crocodile Rock’ that reminds us of the fact that for all the musicals Elton John has written, we’re surely still crying out for an Elton John musical.)
Brayben is one of the most charming actors in musical theatre, best known for her Olivier-winning turn as Carole King in the West End’s ‘Beautiful’. She brings the same lovable peppiness here, but Faye is a much richer, weirder, more complicated character. Throughout, Brayben keeps us convinced of Faye’s essential decency. And she is an absolutely phenomenal singer: John and Shears cobble together some absolutely colossal torch songs in the second half – notably the penultimate ‘If You Came to See Me Cry’ – and she absolutely tears through them. It’s a huge performance that never loses sight of Faye’s absurdity but turns it into something vast and exhilarating via sheer lung power. Also a huge shout out to costume designer Katrina Lindsay’s abundant and excellent wigs as supervised by Suzanne Scotcher: they seamlessly age the young-ish Brayben from wide-eyed ingenue to old dear via a truly fearsome bubble perm.
‘Tammy Faye’ is a massive amount of fun. It’s also been sold out at the Almeida for aeons. The question really is where it goes next. It’s a very niche subject, albeit rendered in such colossally camp shades it feels like it could definitely become a cult thing. Rupert Goold’s production – set against Bunny Christie’s television screen backdrop – bursts out of the tiny Almeida stage, but it’s probably currently a bit shy of the spectacle required for a West End theatre four times bigger. Basically, it’s a terrific piece of entertainment written by the country’s biggest playwright, with songs by Elton John and the guy from the Scissor Sisters. This surely isn’t the last we’ve heard of Tammy Faye.