Tammy Faye (American Theatre, London)
Verdict: unholy mass
Dido and Aeneas (Ustinov Studio, Bath)
Verdict: musical gem
After nearly three hours of witnessing Elton John’s musical comedy about American television evangelist and gay icon Tammy Faye Messner, I said a little prayer.
I prayed that the next time I see a musical about Tammy Faye, I’ll learn something about the woman behind the big hair and the really thick mascara.
Sadly, Almeida’s new show is at best an ecstatic but otherwise unholy fusion of TV’s Strictly and Songs Of Praise.
With the title role played by Katie Brayben, the 75-minute first half is all about the practicalities of Tammy and her first husband Jim (Andrew Rannells) building their Billy Graham-inspired Christian channel PTL (Praise The Lord). .
PATRICK MARMION: After nearly three hours witnessing Elton John’s musical comedy about American television evangelist and gay icon Tammy Faye Messner, I said a little prayer
They are opposed by America’s most conservative preachers, led by Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla, whose harshly repressed diction reflects his rigorous morals).
There is talk of “putting God’s vision on television!” And there’s the shock of seeing Tammy win the ratings war.
But James Graham’s story shows little faith in Tammy herself until the second half, when she does her famous interview with gay pastor and HIV victim Steve Pieters – for which she was condemned by religious fundamentalists .
Until then, Rupert Goold’s boisterous output has mostly consisted of ratings wars and sneering gospel parody.
This includes the sado-masochistic flogging of Jesus carrying his cross in a scene sending up the Christian theme park they named Heritage USA, which ultimately plunged Jim and Tammy’s world into debt and scandal.
Brayben (who won an Olivier Award for her role as Carole King in Beautiful) brings tears and decibels to Elton’s gospel-inspired music, with lyrics by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters. These include Right Kind Of Faith, as she prepares to go on air; and there’s a triumphant lunge, Empty Hands, before intermission. Otherwise, Tammy is to televangelism what Sue Barker was to A Question Of Sport: sweet but boring.
The second half escalates the fashion atrocities, with sequins and Charles II wigs replacing the plaid jackets and geometric sweaters of the first half.
But Tammy’s status as a gay icon, achieved after Pieters’ interview (on the show she hugs him, even though in real life they’ve never met in person) is earned. cheaper. It’s not like she’s Peter Tatchell, risking imprisonment.
A musical with a more reliable pedigree is Henry Purcell’s 17th-century Baroque opera Dido And Aeneas (pictured)
Tammy’s relationship with first husband Jim is sketched superficially, and there is no mention of husband number two (another criminal, church contractor Roe Messner). All of this makes it hard to sympathize with her emotional heart cry If You Came To See Me Cry.
On the plus side, Bunny Christie’s design, with a checkerboard of backlit TV screens to form crucifixes, also provides windows for cheeky interjections from figures such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and the Pope John Paul II.
Lynne Page’s choreography relies on an angular spectacle and the final number, See You In Heaven, is ready for the dance floor.
Patrick Marmion: New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa, as Dido, is particularly tender in the heartbreaking aria, When I Am Laid In Earth, at the opera’s truly spiritual climax
The show has the potential to be a cult hit for the Elton John faithful. But to command Tammy’s mass appeal will require a bigger heart.
A more reliable pedigree musical is Henry Purcell’s 17th-century Baroque opera Dido And Aeneas. Now presented in the gem of the Ustinov Studio theater in Bath, this short and moving work can be enjoyed up close.
The story of how the Queen of Carthage fell in love with a wandering Trojan horse is set in a tomb by the majestic production of Isabelle Kettle. There is a fairly hammered acting. But it weaves a sonic spell that Tammy can’t handle.
New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa, as Dido, is particularly tender in the heartbreaking aria, When I Am Laid In Earth, at the opera’s truly spiritual climax.
The Famous Five (Chichester Festival Theatre)
Verdict: Whips of fun but hits the wrong note
Halfway through with reasonable shorts and scabby knees, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five became a musical.
In a magnificent set of trapdoors of sky, sea, and secret tunnel on the Isle of Kirrin, the story of Elinor Cook is true in spirit but adjusted to modern sensibilities: the pompous Julian, the lively Dick, and the thoughtful Anne arrives to be resented by their tomboyish cousin George (refusing to be Georgina: Blyton arrived there 70 years before Transmania).
She is a gorgeous star turned by Maria Goodman, a defiant child who is neglected by her scientist father, Quentin.
Halfway through with sensible shorts and scabby knees, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five became a musical (pictured)
He secretly works on synthesized algae to cleanly feed the planet. But he forbids her to keep Timmy the dog, a brilliant puppeteer from head to wagging tail. The cousins bond to save him. Meanwhile, the villainous Rowena – Kibong Tanji in a white power suit – is paid by Avarice Oil to thwart the search.
There’s a bivouac, a kidnapping, a penknife rescue and a dynamite near-escape (good ol’ Timmy!) – plus heaps of jam pies and sandwiches.
Fun, mischievous and vigorously directed by Tamara Harvey, this should be a treasure. The problem is the music: Theo Jamieson is an eminent arranger and director of musicals, but his dense lyrics and reluctance to be melodious tend to stifle the fun.
With less angst and better tunes, it could be fabulous. Morally impeccable, of course: in the end, the two villains are reconciled and work together to save the planet.
Hamlet reduced from royal tragedy to domestic drama
Hamlet (Bristol Old Vic)
Verdict: The mother of all tragedies
There’s a moment in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet where someone says the young prince was sent to England because he was mad – but if he didn’t come to his senses it wouldn’t have mattered. importance because “over there, the men are as crazy as he is”.
In a week when the country seemed a more than usual crazy place, the laughter in the auditorium of Bristol’s Old Vic was particularly loud.
Director John Haidar has turned a play about the rotten state of Denmark into a domestic drama of a family at war.
Billy Howe’s Hamlet is a young man who fails to master things gone horribly wrong
Billy Howe’s Hamlet is about a young man who can’t control things that have gone horribly wrong.
He returned from college after the death of his beloved father, only to find his mother, Gertrude, officiating an indecently quick wedding with Claudius, his father’s brother – and his girlfriend, Ophelia, dumping him.
The house he left was different. In his mind – a video projected behind him – he remembers a carefree innocence, like a little boy in the arms of doting parents. Was it for real? Or is his imagination playing tricks on him? And who can he trust if he can’t even trust himself?
More than ever, the play focuses on the broken relationships between parents and their adult children
Dressed in black, gushing tears of grief and betrayal, Howle cuts a lone figure. He has tremendous energy, having decided to “be” rather than not, but the childlike sweetness has deteriorated and it is difficult to warm up. Which perhaps explains why Haidar’s crisp, clear narrative keeps you on the edge of your seat but doesn’t get you under your skin.
Visually, it is striking. Natural light never enters this dark and oppressive castle of Elsinore: a Piranesi-like prison, with dark corridors of power, haunted by the hooded ghost of Hamlet’s father.
More than ever, the play focuses on the broken relationships between parents and their adult children. As Gertrude, Niamh Cusack’s careful calibration of perfect balance to self-loathing despair is the performance that will linger.