Tammy Faye review

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The story of the woman who brought TV evangelism into the garish light of showbusiness is as slick, brisk and entertaining as Tammy Faye Bakker herself. Rupert Goold’s production delivers on many fronts as Tammy (Katie Brayben) and her husband Jim (Andrew Rannells) set out to steal into the hearts, minds and wallets of God-fearing Americans, first with Muppetty hand puppets in the Sixties and thereafter as a singing double act on the newly launched CNN.

The opening scene in which an ageing Tammy undergoes a proctology examination surrounded by seraphic nurses sets the tone of tongue-in-cheek ribaldry.

Billy Graham (Peter Caulfield) enters like an Elvis impersonator, Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla) is a hellfire Republican and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Steve John Shepherd) a disapproving presence who comments tetchily on the Bakkers’ crowdfunding tactics. Against a wall of TV screens that double as windows for commentators, the stage is populated with characters in constant motion.

Deploying gospel, soul and country-and-western pop, Elton John’s songs are smart and sassy without being particularly memorable, although they are superbly delivered by Brayben and co in classic 1980s style. If You Came To See Me Cry, Empty Hands and the innuendo-fuelled He’s Inside Me are particularly notable.

The problem is Graham tries to stuff a pantechnicon-load of material into an overnight bag – the role of Christian media, financial chicanery, religious rivalry, sexual incontinence, political affiliations (such as Falwell’s endorsement of Ronald Reagan) as well as the Bakkers’ own disintegrating marriage. Inevitably, Tammy herself gets sidelined when she should – like Evita – take centre stage throughout.

As a splashy canter through the origins of American televangelism and the various hypocrisies it is heir to, the play works very well.

But Tammy herself remains as unknowable at the end as she is at the beginning – and that’s a pity.

  • Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre until December 3 Tickets: 020 7359 4404

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