Once upon a time humanity worshipped a collection of gods who were beautiful and often petty, who acted out on a grand stage the best and worst of human behaviour. Tales about them feature the age old themes of lust, pride and revenge. I’m referring, of course, to The Greek Pantheon but this is a description which could quite easily also fit modern celebrity culture. It has become a truism that modern religion has been on the decline in the West, with one study published earlier this year showing almost half of the UK are now atheists. This doesn’t, however, mean people have stopped their worshipping; they’ve just moved their sights a little lower than the heavens. With baited breaths we watch with glee as our favourite celebrities trip at awards ceremonies, write songs about their exes and get snapped with a joint in their hands. We particularly love it when they “act” like a normal person, leaning in confidentially to a talk show host to say “yes, I too love eating ice cream whilst watching Netflix, I’m not any different to any of you”.
We love it in part because the idea that they could act like mere mortals seems vaguely unbelievable, their lives being far too beautiful and glamorous to accommodate for the mundane. That’s perhaps why when we hear about terrible things happening to them, it never feels too real either. We read about the disastrous divorce of a golden couple in a coffee-stained magazine and we say “well shucks, that’s too bad” and then go on with our day. I mention all this because Britney Spears is (or was) perhaps the perfect example of one of our new “gods”, with very few other celebrities in the past twenty years garnering as many headlines. Going into Britney Spears the Cabaret I was aware of all the hardships she’d experienced; the divorce, the breakdown, the temporary loss of custody of her children. Yet I’d never really considered that all of these things had happened to a real life person, someone who despite her worldwide fame might be just as susceptible to pain and heartbreak as anybody else. Britney Spears the Cabaret, with a lot of laughs along the way, makes me do just that.
The show features Britney (played by Christie Whelan-Browne) telling the story of her life interspersed with some of her most famous hits. Whelan-Browne is a super-charged version of the pop starlet, with better looks, a better voice, and each idiosyncrasy pushed that little bit further for comic value. She manages to capture the often conflicting values that were, and still to an extent are, placed upon Britney: she’s child-like but raunchy, ditzy but astute. From the moment the show opens with an electric and unhinged performance of “Circus”, we get the impression of a Britney Spears who is playing it fairly close to the edge. This is often as dark as it is funny, with for example Whelan-Browne interspersing the song “Lucky” with a series of neatly timed side-bars (“She’s so lucky, she’s a star – so why did I cut all of my beautiful hair off?”).
The show starts fairly light, with the difficulties of Britney’s childhood alluded to but with a lot of laughs thrown in for good measure, but the balance starts to shift towards the end of the show and things become more serious. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so funny, Britney’s life starts to collapse as we watch her describe the series of miserable events that have befallen her. Her “crazy” behaviour becomes more and more understandable as we understand why somebody who has spent so much of their time in the public eye might start to rebel against the image that’s been crafted for her. It’s reported that following the infamous head shaving incident, Britney said “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me”. Whelan-Browne portrays a Britney who has spent almost the entirety of her life under the control of somebody, a parent or a management team, and struggles to wrest back autonomy of her life and body.
Lefkowiz writes that the Ancient Greeks differentiated themselves from other religious groups by having no single sacred text like the Bible. Instead “authors were free to tell the stories as they chose, with their own emphasis, provided they preserved the principal characters and basic plots”. Ancient Greek authors and modern paparazzi, it would than seem, have a lot more in common than one might think. One of the key themes of Britney Spears the Cabaret is the singer’s relationship with the paparazzi. She appears to view them with equal parts love and hatred, seeming to recognise the symbiotic relationship that exists between herself and them. They would, she remarks in a moment of surprising pathos, probably be the saddest out of everybody when she dies.
As she sings in “Piece of Me”, one of the night’s stand-out performances, she’s often been “Miss bad media karma / another day another drama”. She talks light-heartedly of playing a game where she pretends to get ready to leave the house, just to drive the paparazzi waiting at her gates into a fervour. They follow her at all times, never failing to catch every open-legged crotch shot and reckless parenting moment that she carelessly sends their way. In 2006, a tearful Britney Spears (the real one) implored the paparazzi in a Dateline interview to realise that her and Kevin Federline are “people” and need privacy and respect. Whelan-Browne’s performance succeeds in capturing this sense of persecution, of a person not allowed the modicum of privacy that most of us require to function. It doesn’t change the fact that Britney Spears need these authors of her story, as much as they need her, but it certainly takes some of the shine off her elevated status.
Britney Spears the Cabaret is the kind of show that exceeds expectations in a way which probably seems ridiculous to those who haven’t yet seen it. You got choked up, they say incredulously, over a performance of “Baby One More Time”? Why yes, I reply, and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” was also a bit of a near miss. Remove the name for a moment and this is the true life story of a woman who suffered multiple forced hospitalisations, who was put under conservatorship of her father by the courts (a ruling, Whelan-Browne’s Britney tells us, that is usually saved for “vegetables”) and it’s fair to say has seen her fair share of disastrous romantic relationships. Matthew Frank’s musical arrangements and Dean Bryants whip-smart writing paint a nuanced picture of Britney Spears as a woman whose outlandish behaviour over the past decade is not only understandable but seems almost mild in the face of her life experiences. This is a bittersweet character portrait which certainly seems to leave the audience saying “Gimme, Gimme more”.
Britney Spears the Cabaret was performed in September 2017 at The Other Place in London.
 Harriet Sherwood, “Nearly 50% are of no religion – but has UK hit ‘peak secular’?” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/13/uk-losing-faith-religion-young-reject-parents-beliefs
 Mary R. Lefkowiz, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths (Yale University Press, 2005): 13