Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Saving Britney

David Shopland with Shereen Roushbaian
Fake Escape
Hope Mill Theatre

Saving Britney
Saving Britney
Saving Britney

The relationship between artists and their admirers is complex. The former gain money, fame and respect while the latter get entertained, a sense of community with other fans and even of identification with the artist. It is the final point which is examined in Saving Britney devised by and starring sole performer Shereen Roushbaian and scripted and directed by David Shopland.

Jean’s obsession with Britney Spears is becoming a concern. Since childhood, she has related to the singer going so far as to strain logic to find ways in which Britney’s songs and life reflect key points in her own. They share the same birthday, Britney’s shock kiss with Madonna, captured on TV of course, coincided with Emma’s realisation of her own sexual identity and so on. Yet Emma is starting to worry her obsession may be contributing to the difficulties experienced by her heroine.

Despite the title, the least convincing aspects of the play concern Britney Spears. As an excellent narrative device, Shereen Roushbaian adopts the persona of an American tour guide whose superficially smiley summary of Spears’s early years in showbiz acts as an ominous warning of trouble ahead. Yet when the script lists the possible reasons for the singer’s decline into mental illness—patriarchal or managerial manipulation—it feels a bit skimpy, an acknowledgment rather than an analysis. Jean is willing to overlook facts which do not accord with her viewpoint, constantly arguing the song lyrics are a cry for help, although it is common knowledge they were written by a committee rather than by Spears alone.

The development of Jean’s character on the other hand is full and completely satisfying. Jean describes her life as if the only part of interest is her obsession with Britney. Yet Roushbaian makes clear the character is so lively, self-aware and downright appealing, this is far from the case. Saving Britney becomes, therefore, a study of someone coming to terms with the realisation they are strong enough to no longer need the crutch they have been using for support. It helps immeasurably that the character is so likable you want her to succeed. Roushbaian delivers lines with the understated pacing of a stand-up comedian, reporting with a straight face she and Britney have the same birthday—eight years apart but still the same date.

As director, David Shopland creates a high-energy production. Jean has been diagnosed with the condition ADHD and consequently Shereen Roushbaian rarely stands still, constantly bouncing around with excitement and replicating the dance moves of Britney Spears. Yet these are far from the polished moves of a professional but rather the awkward dancing of a fan practising before the mirror. As with much in the play, it serves to emphasise Jean’s vulnerability.

Shopland’s script is a shameless and crowd-pleasing nostalgia-fest referring to shops and products which no longer exist. Audience members cheerfully acknowledge Jean’s appreciation of Walkman cassette players or the sound emitted by CD players just before the music starts. In a script full of great lines, Jean’s questioning why every shop in the 1990s had a pick & mix sweet counter is particularly good.

A test of any work of art is whether it is appeals to a wide audience. The themes of Saving Britney—rueful regret, coming to terms with parental divorce, mourning the loss of a parent and stumbling towards true sexuality—are universal and, together with a great script and a warm and moving performance, make the play irresistible.

Reviewer: David Cunningham