Tammy Faye

Music by Elton John lyrics by Jake Shears and book by James Graham
The Almeida in association with Rocket Stage and Greene Light Stage.
Almeida Theatre

Tammy Faye (Katie Brayben) and Jim Baker (Andrew Rannells) Credit: Marc Brenner
Tammy Faye Credit: Marc Brenner
Tammy Faye Credit: Marc Brenner

The terrifying growth of the Christian right as an organised political force from the 1970s still haunts America. Exit polls for the 2016 Presidential election claim some 85% of evangelicals voted for Trump.

The musical Tammy Faye with a book by James Graham charts the rise and fall of some of those involved with that movement from the notorious Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla) to the more liberal Tammy Faye (Katie Brayben) who demonstrates her more inclusive values by hugging on television the gay pastor Steve Pieters (Ashley Campbell) who was suffering from HIV.

The opening scene sets the tone of the show. Tammy needs to be medically examined. She tells the staff she looked everywhere for a female to carry this out, but homosexual medics were about as close as she could get. When the medic says she has cancer which will require the removal of part of her colon, she replies that it will “leave her with a semi-colon.”

The jokes are broad and not particularly funny, but they signal that Tammy is not a conventional evangelical. The story takes her from puppet shows with her husband Jim Baker (Andrew Rannells), to running a television channel given to them (or rather Jim since women were regarded as mere accompaniments to a man) by the millionaire Ted Turner (Nicholas Rowe).

They combined lifestyle entertainment with a “prosperity gospel”. James Graham keeps an eye on what might amuse, in one scene having Tammy interview Larry Flynt (Peter Caulfield) who tells her he had sex with a chicken. The station switches to Jim whose opening remark to Colonel Sanders is, “well you like chickens as well.”

Their story also touches on Jim’s forty-five-year prison sentence for fraud and his sexual encounters with a woman who alleges assault. There isn't much dialogue, but jokes are sprinkled throughout the piece, which includes a bevy of right-wing religious fundamentalists and Ronald Reagan. Beyond Tammy, the characters are all cartoon cut-outs that you might find in a late-night satirical sketch show.

Inevitably, the story and any edge the light liberal politics of the book might convey is overshadowed by the music of Elton John which ranges from echoes of his 1970s catalogue with occasional touches of soul and pop. None of it is memorable despite the brilliant singing of Katie Brayben. You might notice it chiming with the book's attempt at humour as in the song “He’s inside me” referring of course to God being inside men and women.

The conventional lyrics by Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters are no engine to the plot but entertain with lines such as “hold me like a parachute... if we hit the ground.”

The dancing, the singing, the jokes and the dash of gentle liberal politics along with a happy ending song of “See You In Heaven” will certainly entertain an audience wanting an easy three hours of escapist, unchallenging music with a few laughs. But it won't satisfy those yearning for theatre that engages with our troubled times.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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