Immensely spectacular creative work and some corking performances can’t quite hide the hollowness at the heart of Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre
“You opened your heart and people wanted to come in. It was like the opposite of church”
I don’t know anything about the world of US TV evangelists. And I wonder how many Brits really do, aside from seeing the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye last year, heaven knows the reviewers all appear to be experts… Which is a roundabout way of saying that it feels like an odd choice for Tammy Faye to emerge at the Almeida Theatre (is there a cultural exchange scheme maybe? Can we expect Bella Emberg the Musical at Roundabout next year? I’d LOVE that 😂)
And further to that, the show is directed by Rupert Goold with a book by James Graham and score by Elton John, lyricist Jake Shears (late of much-missed Scissor Sisters) is the only US headline creative. I don’t know if it is particularly important, or rather I can’t say, as I don’t know anything about the true life story of Tammy Faye, but it all just feels like a curious choice to put so much creative resource into, at least on this side of the pond.
And there’s so much here. Goold knows how to stage a balls-out amazing musical in this space (I LOVED American Psycho) and with Bunny Christie’s witty and wonderful set design evoking so many TV memories, Lynne Page’s choreography glorious in its gay abandon and Katrina Lindsay’s resplendent 80s wig and costume work, Tammy Faye is an undoubted visual treat that does so much so right.
This is matched with some impeccable casting. Katie Brayben is quietly building a career as one of our finest thespians and she’s fantastic here, more than capable of leading from the front with her astounding vocal prowess and real nuance worked into her character even as the kitsch threatens to overwhelm. Andrew Rannells impresses too as her husband and co-televangelist who has to learn to live increasingly in her shadow.
Storywise, the rise of the Christian right in the face of Tammy’s burgeoning feminist and gay rights credentials is present but it doesn’t always feel like the production is particularly interested in telling this tale. At times, it is like an advent calendar of flashy drive-by cameos and camp moments which, as entertaining as they are, do detract from the precision with which we have become so luxuriously accustomed with James Graham’s incredible oeuvre.
And Elton John’s score also has a distracting quality to it, as it draws on multiple US influences of Christian rock, gospel and honky-tonk as well as musical theatre standards without ever managing to come up with a personality or identity of its own. The iconic majesty of the music of Billy Elliot is missing here; without the bells and whistles of this production (and the efforts of a fantastic cast), you wonder how forgettable this score might end up being.