Thursday 22 December 2022

Tammy Faye

 Almeida, London

16th November 2023, matinee

He’s inside Tammy and he’s inside Jim

Theatre lovers have whispered rumours for years about Elton John’s long-awaited Tammy Faye musical. Following the success of the recent Oscar-winning film based on the Televangelist’s life, audiences’ appetites had been well and truly whetted. You could say it’s been a varied year for Elton – the first newly staged revival of Billy Elliot opened at Curve to rave reviews back in July, while the songwriter’s recent adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada was by all accounts underwhelming. So, where does Tammy Faye sit on the 2022 success scale? While not quite as emotionally engaging or instantly lovable as Billy, the musical is polished, witty and has enough catchy tunes to warrant further life.

James Graham’s book frames the piece as a memory play. We begin with an ailing Tammy (Katie Brayben) being given a bleak prognosis by her doctor, although Tammy, the eternal optimist, can’t help but use the opportunity to crack jokes at her own expense. We subsequently travel back through the years as Tammy remembers the ups and downs of her extraordinary career. For a British audience the world of televangelism seems utterly alien – a mix of religious fanaticism and cloyingly American cheeriness, earnestness and bravura. Yet the human stories beneath in this madcap veneer of zealousness are engaging and intriguing.

Together with her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Rannells), Tammy Faye creates her own PTL (Praise The Lord) tv chat show – think This Morning with added piety (and puppets!) – and soon climbs the ladder of success to prove her doubters wrong. Chief among these doubters is Zubin Varla’s old-school Jerry Falwell, who thinks that religion is a strictly serious business, and believes the word of God should be preached by a series of grey men in grey suits. And while Tammy may seem the very antithesis of ‘serious’, we never doubt her faith and she doesn’t shy away from broaching taboo subjects – as seen in her famous interview with AIDS patient Steve Pieters. While the musical perhaps sentimentalises this moment (Tammy hugs Steve, when in reality the interview was conducted via video link), the evident bias towards Bakker fits with the memory play structure; we are seeing Tammy as she sees herself – a selfless beacon of virtue. Bakker is very much the victim according to this version of events. She is clueless when it comes to the financial scam orchestrated by her husband, wherein viewers are persuaded to part with their cash in order to reserve their place in the PTL ‘home’ and promised theme park as laid out in the high kitsch number ‘God’s House/Heritage USA’. Yes, it’s difficult to believe that someone shrewd enough to climb the fame ladder can be so naïve, but this can be forgiven thanks to the nostalgic perspective of our protagonist. Even Bakker’s famed over-the-top aesthetic is toned down here in comparison with other portrayals.

The creative team do a great job of bringing to life these outlandish characters without turning them into caricatures. We sympathise with Tammy when Jim is found to have sexually assaulted a fan (although it would have been nice to see a little more from victim, Jessica Hahn’s perspective here), and her optimism and strength are wondrous. As expected, John and Shears have written some cracking torch songs for their heroine, namely the Act One finale ‘Empty Hands’ and the empowering ballad ‘If You Came To See Me Cry’. Katie Brayben excels during these moments, pouring her heart out and giving her all in a performance that is bound to garner many nominations come awards season. Other musical highlights include ‘Satellite of God’, a ‘Stars’-esque number sung by a stoic Jerry Falwell, and the cutesy duet ‘Light of Love’, sung by the young Jim and Tammy when the world was their oyster and both their love and piety seemed most sincere.

Goold’s direction is solid, making the most of the kitsch subject matter without becoming too gaudy. While the show fits nicely on the intimate Almeida stage, I can’t help but think this has been designed and directed with bigger spaces in mind. Bunny Christie sets events against a large television gameshow-like backdrop, complete with sliding windows through which characters pop up and offer commentary. The show also has a large roster of characters populating the stage, which helps in creating the sweeping feel to the saga. The cast are generally excellent, with Brayben, Rannells and Varla particularly well cast in their roles.

The world of Tammy Faye Bakker is a marvel, and we’re encouraged to gawp and titter at the bizarre fantasy land on display, but the jokes are never mean and the action is peppered with a pathos that reminds us that these are real people and real events. While it may not be to everyone’s taste I loved Graham’s ending to the play. I won’t say much more so as not to spoil it, but it is both a surprising and touchingly fitting finale to the Tammy Faye story. This show will get a further life. When, who knows. But I have faith…

Tammy Faye played at the Almeida until 3rd December.


Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben in Tammy Faye. Credit: Marc Brenner



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