Almeida Theatre, London – until 3 December 2022
Rarely in the history of Islington playgoing have so many first-nighters whooped so enthusiastically at Gospel rock. When cheers for Elton John’s anthems briefly abate it is often for quite different whoops, laughter at James Graham’s dry sharp script or moments of enchanted shock at an unexpected popup. This is a new musical telling the story of the accelerating frenzy of the 1970s televangelism boom, and the rise and fall of Ted Turner’s PTL (“Praise the Lord!”) Network with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye. The couple “reached out”to tens of millions of Americans and hauled in millions in donations before a string of scandals brought them down and Bakker into prison for fraud.
So here’s a 20c history-play delivered as a camp Christian-rock spectacular, with the irresistible glory of Elton John numbers with nifty lyrics by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters. A huge television studio becomes electric-church America with screens and galleries for sudden irruptions by characters from Reagan to Archbishop Runcie, Ted Turner to John Paul 2.
Rupert Goold’s rollicking direction flashes – between numerous passionate songs – through scenes of marital collaboration and betrayal, TV-biz negotiation and the preposterous commercialisation of the faithful. These holy-joes sold everything from unbuilt hotel rooms to recipes to underwear, not to mention penile vacuum devices (demonstrated with balloons by Tammy). Meanwhile infighting pastors talk moral-majority politics with Presidential candidates, and the Bakker’s hokey theatrical evocations of the crucifixion (with very camp flagellation) whiz past before you have time to wonder if they should. Many scenes culminate in dancing of diabolical merriment by the ensemble: the vigour never flags.
In shape it is nicely book-ended: opening with Tammy receiving her final cancer diagnosis (comedy proctology) it later closes with her in heaven: the first-act jerking frenzy of a Billy Graham rally is mirrored in the second half by a riot of furious cheated punters. Revival, after all, is only a whisker away from riot.
At the show’s heart are some storming performances: Katie Brayben as Tammy catches both her immense likeability and her showgirl charisma in the huge belting numbers (“A big-haired trainer-trash hoochy mama…” raves a furious rival, and Brayben gives it all that, alongside proper charm).
Andrew Rannells as Bakker maintains a deadpan geekiness alongside his cleverer wife until folie de grandeur gets a grip on him; but becomes genuinely moving in his downfall number “Look how far we’ve fallen” with other disgraced TV pastors. And Zubin Varla as their nemeis is fabulously basso, delivering a thrilling hymn to the TV satellites as the strait-laced Jerry Falwell, “last man standing” in the electro-church debacle and scourge of everything feminist as a road to death, hell and lesbianism.
It is detectably James-Graham, which is great: in all his political plays his humane strength is in being willing to accept that even the worst operators were, at least some of the time, genuinely in earnest. When Tammy, breaking with the strait-laced homophobia of most of the movement, does her famous sympathetic interview with the gay Steve Pieters it is largely rendered verbatim, and is quietly moving. When the Pope, chief Mormon and Archbishop Runcie worry about whether to let the American televangelism into the World Council of Churches as a possible “Awakening” , but then realize it is more like a reckoning, we laugh but are not invited to contempt. There is even proper sympathy in the penitent renderings of of “We thought that it was God’s voice calling but someone else was on the line”.
The show is also, finally, remarkably Christian in its vision of the chastened and impoverished Tammy and her AIDS- stricken friends being the real heart of what a decent faith means. . Meeting in heaven to compare deaths, when Falwell says his fate was heart failure Tammy remarks , kindly, that he didn’t die of it, he lived with it.
It’s a piece of bravura and massively entertaining: should transfer up West – Elton John and James Graham in harness, for heaven’s sake – but the New York journalist next to me doubted that Broadway will open its arms to it. We’ll see. Some of the songs will live anyway, though, and be much covered. I’d put money on Tammy’s last defiant number “If you came to see me cry..” ( you might as well grow wings and fly). It could become a new “My Way” for women.
Box office Almeida.co.uk. To 3 Dec. All showing sold-out, but there are always chances and returns.
Rating. 4 I did wonder about 5, but a voice from heaven said..hmmm…