I’m not sure how much the character “Jean” in Saving Britney is based on a real person, but one thing is for sure: Showing intense respect and affection for its subject, this highly entertaining new play is a deeply intimate and achingly honest exploration of the role our pop culture icons play in our lives. After selling out venues in the UK, the one-woman show is now making its debut at New York City’s Soho Playhouse. Saving Britney is a collaboration between writer/director David Shopland and award-winning performer Shereen Roushbaiani. Using the parallel explorations of (1) Britney Spears’ phenomenal rise to superstardom and (2) the coming of age of our main character Jean (played by Roushbaiani), the piece is both smartly funny and candidly provocative.
The intimate performance space of Soho Playhouse is decorated exactly as you’d imagine any Britney fangirl’s bedroom would be: a true adolescent-style shrine to our Miss Spears. Decorating the walls are cutouts from magazines, newspaper clippings, CD’s, and other Britney ephemera– ornamented with stick-on letters and accents of magic marker, with astute attention to detail. (Look closely and you’ll see that Papa Jamie Spears’ head has been scribbled over in one photo!…) The ultimate cherry on top of this ’90’s-style pop culture confection is a shockingly pink, purse-like portable CD player. As the audience waits for “Jean” to make her entrance, we are treated to a musical medley of covers of Britney’s impressive discography, from Gimme More to Toxic and all the other fan faves. The music is interrupted by a sudden cacophony composed of many, many sensationalist sound bites from years of Britney headlines (Chris Crocker’s infamous “Leave Britney alone!” can be heard amongst the screaming tabloid tidbits.). In 2022, the intro was a reminder of how much power Britney Spears held over the media… and how ANYTHING about Miss Spears was considered to be major news.
The audience then meets Jean, whose birthday is December 2nd. If that date sounds familiar for Britney fans, it’s because that is also Miss Spears’ birthday… although Jean was born on that date eight years later. We learn that Jean first discovered Britney on Top of the Pops, not MTV. (Jean is British after all, so be expected to Google such stuff as “Riciles” and “Agyness Deyn“. From that first addictive hook of Baby One More Time, a superfan was born. In Jean’s own words, “I devoured all things Spears!”. Later on, Jean would declare, “She was releasing these albums just as I was needing to hear them!” Saving Britney really comes alive (and, for so many of us, becomes highly relatable) when Jean shares her own journey of Britney worship and aligns them with Spears’ own coming of age. Of course, in Britney’s case, it was a coming of age with the whole world watching. Jean recalls how Baby One More Time, the album, was the first CD she bought with her own money. She shares how would secretly visit a Britney Spears fan group on the Internet. She would get the reputation at school as “the Britney girl”. In perhaps the play’s most touching segment, Jean reveals how Spears’ much ballyhooed kiss with Madonna on the MTV VMAs in 2003 gave her own budding same-sex feelings some much-needed validation. Despite all the wide-eyed admiration, however, there was something behind the high-energy music. Jean noted about her idol, “The pain that cut through the overproduced pop spoke to me.” and asked the audience out loud, “Does anyone know what lay behind those hazel eyes?” Giving the audience some convincing evidence, the main character of Saving Britney was seeing some early signs of trouble in her role model which would take much, much longer for the general public to notice. Had Britney been putting messages in her music 20 years before #FreeBritney became a thing?
This would be a good time to say that Shereen Roushbaiani is just perfect as Jean. As the play progressed, Saving Britney continued with the parallel exploration of both women’s lives, including some very “adult” problems. (Just as Britney’s coming of age was in the public eye, so too were her problems in adulthood.) In an example of subtle acting skill, Roushbaiani’s character (aided by the symbolic act of letting her hair down) immediately transformed from naive girl to grown woman for the final moments of the play, when her devotion to Miss Spears is put to a challenge in 2021. (Without getting too specific, it involves a plane ticket to Los Angeles…)
Saving Britney could have been a skin-deep piece of ’90’s nostalgia, but the aforementioned devotion to its subject matter, intelligent insight on the nature of celebrity, and empathy for the lead character make it an experience that can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone, regardless of the musical era they grew up in. Meticulous set design, well-paced direction, and a fine performance by Shereen Roushbaiani combine to make Saving Britney a truly moving piece of theater. The same way our Britney Jean Spears has seemingly lived a million lives in her 40 years, Saving Britney packs a wallop into its 65-minute running time.
Saving Britney continues Wednesdays through Saturdays until July 30th at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St, New York City. Visit www.SohoPlayhouse.com for more information and tickets.