Arriving in London after a triumphant debut at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie stomps into the West End on the highest of heels. It’s a small-scale show, with a modest-sized cast and bare-bones scenery, but it’s one that makes a massive noise – an ‘I’m here, I’m queer’ musical that speaks directly to today’s LGBT+ youth in a way no other show ever has before.
Our hero is Jamie New, an out-of-the-closet 16-year-old school boy who, when told by the careers teacher that his future lies in forklift truck driving, declares he has every intention of becoming a drag queen. In fact, he intends to attend the school prom in a dress – which might sound like a fanciful plot conceit if the show wasn’t based on a true story as originally told in the 2011 BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen At 16.
In Tom MacRae’s script, Jamie’s a loveably nervous, admirably determined teen who – with the support of a best friend named Pritti and a mum who loves every inch of him for everything he is – flies in the face of homophobia from the school bully and an absent father who loathes him for not being the archetypal macho son.
Set in Sheffield, it’s a story that is painfully poignant at times and screamingly funny at others. MacRae has a Victoria-Wood-meets-Jonathan-Harvey way with a line (comparing Beyonce to Emily Pankhurst and having one character declare “Oh Margaret, we’re not in Asda anymore”) and he has a spot-on ear for the way young people talk. In Jamie he’s also fashioned a fully-fleshed-out character who is so much more than a set of fabulous quips.
Bringing Jamie to wonderfully vivid life is John McCrea, who originated the role in Sheffield and who is the show’s heart and soul. He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice (do drag queens ever?) but it’s a very sweet one that tears at the heart when he’s lamenting feeling Ugly In An Ugly World and he has more than enough charisma to fill the gigantic red shoes he prances around in before finding a more elegant look for his inner drag artiste.
As his mum Josie Walker is quite wonderful and her song about loving her son frocks, sequins, stilettos and all is an absolute heartbreaker. Another stand-out in the hardworking cast is Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti, Jamie’s Muslim best friend who is no stranger to being bullied and whose song about inner beauty is also a real heart-tearer.
These songs, and the rest of the score, come courtesy of The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells, with MacRae supplying the lyrics. The songs Dan’s crafted aren’t Lloyd Webber earworms, they’re lively ensemble numbers and beautiful ballads that serve the characters perfectly and which are, with one mistaken bit of interpretative dance aside, superbly choreographed by Kate Prince to include selfies and cell phones.
Honoured with this year’s Culture Award at the Virgin Holidays Attitude Awards, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a show everybody should be talking about. Musicals about drag queens are nothing new and Kinky Boots, which is still playing in London, is a fantastic recent example. But Kinky Boots is about a man who is looking to walk the walk in the right shoes whereas Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is about a teenager who is still finding his feet. Its message of acceptance is delivered to a young audience who might not be able to relate to shoe factories and fashion shows but who know everything about the struggle to be their authentic selves.
Some critics feel the script isn’t gritty enough, but there’s bigotry and gay-bashing and having too much more doom and gloom would undercut the uplift that director Jonathan Butterell pulls off so thrillingly. MacRae mentions in the souvenir programme that Butterell knew what he was doing while he and Sells, being newbies to musical theatre, didn’t have a clue so they never thought they were doing it wrong. Ignorance is bliss and what they’ve done is so fresh and new their ignorance has resulted in something blissful indeed.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre, London.
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Words by Simon Button