The week in theatre: Tammy Faye; Hamlet; Marvellous – review

Almeida, London; Bristol Old Vic; Soho Place, London
Katie Brayben nails the title role as Tammy Faye in a musical otherwise lacking edge, Billy Howle makes a princely Hamlet and an all-new West End theatre is launched by an amazing life

When I am prime minister I will make James Graham minister for the arts. Mostly because he has spoken up so eloquently for the theatre in recent years. But also because he knows how to make the least likely stories unfurl their wings.

Well, usually. He has faltered though not fallen, alongside Elton John, with Tammy Faye. This musical exploration of the rise and fall of the televangelist who, allotted a satellite network by Ted Turner, aimed to “put the Faye into faith” and the “fun into fundamentalism”, is given plenty of pizzazz by director Rupert Goold, but it doesn’t skewer.

John, who made one of the best ever musicals in Billy Elliot, here does dutiful rather than divine work. He has provided rock, a great torch song, some honky-tonk, swelling gospel and a terrific giddy-up revenge chorus, with much self-slapping of buttocks and heels. The lyrics, by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters, whoop enjoyably around the mix of sex and sacredness – Jesus is “inside Tammy and he’s inside Jim”. And there is, along with a good turn from Andrew Rannells as the smug-but-uncertain husband who begins as the main attraction and becomes the backing group, a tremendous performance from Katie Brayben.

As Faye, Brayben is not only powerful and belting-voiced: she plaits sincerity into the confection of her on-screen personality, drenched in rehearsed, yet real tears. She horrifies the vicious and venal among the godly when she “reaches out” to a gay pastor who has contracted Aids and, in doing so, becomes her most interesting self: ostentatious, brave and strangely groundbreaking. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes beautifully echo her progress from convention through glitz and final unravelling: blouses with pussy-cat bows, red chiffon pleated skirt, stiff rhinestone jacket – and a loose trenchcoat in which she looks as doe-eyed (though more smudged) than Dusty Springfield.

Graham steers the plot towards excoriation of the far right but the evening lacks threat. Goold’s production speeds along on bright cameos – Billy Graham is a swivel-hipped wonder, more Elvis than evangelist – and some overcooked satirical pop-ups. The comparison haunting the show is with the great satire on moral telly, Jerry Springer: The Opera. There, the grubbier the action the more sublime the music. Those extremities and their consequences are lacking here: not enough sordidness, not enough soaring.

Mirren Mack as Ophelia and Billy Howle as Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.
Mirren Mack as Ophelia and Billy Howle as Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic. Photograph: Marc Brenner

John Haidar’s subtly disrupting production of Hamlet begins as a memory play: Billy Howle’s prince replays taped speeches, as if trying to recall and make sense of history. It ends with Hamlet handing a tape to Horatio, to ensure a succession of remembrance, if not of rulers.

Yet the evening is far from mechanically conceptual. Alex Eales’s design of corrugated black walls spins slowly around, to show recesses for snoopers; no single position dominates; everyone is at the centre of a plot; the truth is elusive until the end.

Not that the prince is muffled. Howle is a marvellous talent. Suffused with feeling, which bewilders him and sometimes his audience, he occasionally roars inexplicably; his gestures are not always in sync with his speech. This will not be his only Hamlet; he has more to offer. But he is never less than authentic.

Naturalness and urgency – and a generosity of attention by the actors – are keynotes. Natalie Pryce’s casual modern dress brings ease and a release from stateliness – though with no slackness in the rhythm of the verse. Haidar does not strain to prove how the play can wire into a new generation, yet I have rarely seen youthful energy put to such good use: there is a collaborative force and eagerness among the younger actors, which binds them on stage. Mirren Mack gives Ophelia a much-needed roughing up; she appears truly tumbled. As Horatio, Isabel Adomakoh Young radiates attention: she looks as if she is about to take off from invisible starting blocks; her millefeuille voice provides layers in a phrase.

I don’t think I have ever seen a better pairing of Gertrude and Claudius than real-life husband and wife Niamh Cusack and Finbar Lynch. Lynch is horribly rational as he argues with his chaotic stepson. Yet he looks frail: his gestures shrink, as if he is stuck like an insect to flypaper. In a wonderful stroke Cusack – anxious and ingratiating near her son – touches Lynch’s arm when she says the word “king”. He smirks. How did royalty get confused with grace?

At the first purpose-built theatre in the West End for 50 years, preconceptions melt. At first, Soho Place looks too continuous with this glossified corner of London. Glassy, with purple and gold stars, like corporate trying to be colourful. Yet near the auditorium huge windows look out on to the Charing Cross Road, capturing London scenes. That is more than an incidental pleasure: it wakes your eyes up, helps you to begin the idea of framing what you see.

Mike Hugo as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous.
Mike Hugo as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous. Photograph: Craig Sugden

Inside, the flexible auditorium is configured in the round to enclose Theresa Heskins’s production of Neil Baldwin and Malcolm Clarke’s play Marvellous – as it was when first seen at the New Vic theatre. The action is warmly circled – the upper tiers glow like copper – and embraced by its audience. I’ve rarely been in a theatre where the spectators seemed to breathe so much in time with a show.

This is the more striking as the life it lights up is a specifically Potteries story. Baldwin, who was the subject of a 2014 television film starring Toby Jones, is a famous local figure. Born in 1946, he was diagnosed with what was then called “a mental handicap”. Yet he has become most of the people he wanted to be: a vicar (he greeted students at Keele University in a dog collar), kit man to Lou Macari at Stoke City, a circus clown.

One person can’t contain him. He is played by a variety of actors, the chief of whom, Mike Hugo, magically produces from his “bag for life” almost all the props needed to furnish the stage. The cast is neurodiverse and unsentimental. When Baldwin is praised for being forthright in his appeals to strangers because he has “no filter”, another actor says that having no filter does not work in his favour: people are not charmed - he has Asperger’s.

There are sobering notes – a bullying circus proprietor, some brutal “banter” - yet solemnity is constantly undermined. A female actor who insists on delivering a speech about the iniquity of neuro-labels is custard-pied. Baldwin does not want explanation; just imaginative attention. Marvellous is the perfect argument for a welcoming theatre space.

Star ratings (out of five)
Tammy Faye


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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