By Neil Durham
WORTH A LOOK?: *****
WHEN?: Saturday 22 October (matinee), runs to 3 December 2022 RUNTIME: 170 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)
There are so many male reasons – music by Elton John, lyrics by the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and a book by James (Ink) Graham – to be excited for this musical life story of US tele-evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker but, ultimately, it is its leading lady Katie Brayben whose input shines brightest.
- Read on for reasons including how this is a musical designed with a Broadway transfer in mind
This is the 1st time we’ve ever seen Brayben on a stage and she perhaps most famously won a Best Actress Olivier for Beautiful – The Carole King Story which we didn’t see until 2017 when the fabulous Cassidy Janson had taken on the role.
This show’s stand-out moment is 11pm number – referring to its position in the show – If You Came To See Me Cry when Brayben proves not only what an outstanding live vocalist she is but also how she is utterly inhabiting the part of an evangelist who hosted a religious TV show with her husband Jim in the 70s and 80s.
Given its authors, it’s perhaps little surprise that its entire run at this intimate 325-seat off West End north London venue has sold out.
Its set – which gives the feel of both television studio and church while allowing for real intimate moments between the couple at the show’s heart – is so elaborate that it’s perhaps the biggest clue that this production is designed for an imminent West End transfer and Broadway run ahead of the next US election.
Its material will be much more familiar to US audiences and its themes of a resurgent Republican party leaning heavily into religious backing are likely to have more resonances on Broadway than here like the anticipated transfer of the Old Vic’s The 47th which was similarly helmed by the Almeida’s Artistic Director Rupert Goold.
A musical lives and dies by its best songs and our comic favourite was the cheeky He’s Inside Me which nods to the gay friendliness of this show’s titular star and the possible closetedness of her husband played by Andrew Rannells (The Prom and The Boys In The Band), making his London debut in a role which requires him often to play second fiddle to his more empathetic wife.
The story itself is a rise and fall tale typical of musicals and, while the couple find TV fame and national notoriety, the microscope they come under forces them apart and their spending goes through the roof as they rely on their often impoverished TV audience congregation to fund their over extravagances.
We suspect the element of the story that most attracted John, Shears and Graham was Tammy Faye’s 1985 interview with Steve Pieters, a gay pastor with HIV, and the kindness she showed him encouraging others to hug him at a time when paranoia about public health was at its height.
Elsewhere the score boasts the beautiful If Only Love, which reminded us of John’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, an excerpt of his own classic Crocodile Rock, pre-interval showstopper Empty Hands and the encore of the gospel-friendly See You In Heaven.
The cast has strength in depth and we enjoyed Fred Haig’s proctologist who provides a neat framing device to much of the material, Zubin Varla’s villainous Jerry Falwell, Gemma Sutton’s (The Rink, Southwark Playhouse) wronged Jessica Hahn, Steve John Shepherd’s hilarious Archbishop of Canterbury and Amy Booth-Steel’s ultimately treacherous sidekick.
There’s a standing ovation at the show’s close and, if you can get a return, do try to see this fabulous production in this intimate surrounding but, otherwise, don’t despair because we anticipate it will be arriving at the West End and then Broadway soon.
Brayben’s performance is worth the price of admission alone and, wiping tears from our eyes at the show’s close, we suspect it will give Jodie Comer’s already award-winning turn in Prima Facie a run for its money in our 8th annual monstas at the end of this year.
- Main picture via Facebook courtesy Almeida Theatre Tickets
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