How lovely it is to be back at the Old Red Lion. With its idiosyncratic two-sided seating and intimate capacity, this is one of London’s most charming pub theatres – it’s always a pleasure to be here.
The reason I’m here is David Shopland’s Saving Britney, a one-woman play about Jean from Gloucestershire and global pop star Britney Spears. Played by Shereen Roushbaiani, Jean has been captivated by Britney since hearing the opening bars of Baby One More Time at the age of eight. A fervent devotee from that moment on, Jean obsesses over her idol, coming to believe there are a spooky number of coincidences between her life and Britney’s.
Through adolescent traumas, first love and bereavement, Jean derives comfort and support from her spiritual relationship with Britney, until a crisis in an airport departure lounge sends her on a new journey.
Roushbaiani is an appealing performer who gives the somewhat mousey Jean a sympathetic sheen. She’s adept at switching between emotional modes, connects well with the audience, and if Jean doesn’t exactly light up the stage, that’s down to the script rather than the actress. Jean and her narrative are just a little too small scale to be particularly involving. Perhaps this is a result of a desire to contrast superstar Britney with “normal” Jean, but it’s drama’s job to make the ordinary interesting, and Jean just doesn’t quite make the grade.
Alongside Jean’s story, Roushbaiani slips into an American accent to narrate Britney’s CV, from talent contest darling through the Micky Mouse Club machine to global teen sensation. I’m not sure why a different persona is used for this strand – surely having fan Jean relate Britney’s story directly would help to bring the supposed similarities between them into sharper focus?
The show is inspired by the #FreeBritney campaign and hashtag: the call sign of fans outraged by the fact that the singer’s finances and freedoms have been controlled by a court-appointed conservatorship since her notorious public meltdown in 2008. The fan view is that if Britney can sustain a phenomenally successful recording and touring career, she ought to be allowed to take back the reins of her own life. This undoubtedly intriguing situation pops up late in the play, and although it serves as a plot point it isn’t really taken advantage of dramatically.
There’s much to admire in this production: Roushbaiani is never less than watchable, and Shopland directs his script with assurance, making canny use of the space and the simple but effective set.
I feel I ought to be ending on a Britney lyric quote or pun, but sadly nothing suggests itself. Maybe I’m not enough of a fan to have really clicked with the show, but I’m glad of the excuse to have returned to this peach of a venue.
Written and directed by: David Shopland
Produced by: Fake Escape
Saving Britney is playing until 5 June. Further details and booking information via the below link.