It’s promising material for musical theatre. A sixteen year old boy in County Durham who wants to go to his school prom in drag. Jonathan Butterell saw the BBC Three documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, and knew he had a strong premise for a show. An approach to Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, who came straight on board, confirmed his instincts. Several years’ work later, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie premieres in Sheffield to screaming ovations for a screaming queen, and a red sequinned star is born.
Jamie Campbell’s story, as told in the original 2011 documentary, has been boiled down to its essence. A boy defies the gender conventions of his school and wider society. A loving mother supports her son and in trying to protect him from pain traps herself in lies that will come to hurt him. A father rejects his son’s femininity. A school bully learns an uncomfortable lesson. And an unlikely best friendship empowers both parties. The narrative of the show may be predictable, but that makes it no less satisfying to watch.
However, there are some other problems. If this is the coming out story of a teenage drag queen, the story needs to deliver on the triumph of the drag act. The first half of the show skilfully moves Jamie from the schoolboy with a crazy dream to the nascent drag queen Mimi Me on the verge of a triumphant first performance. And then…..we don’t see the performance. We hear about it from the excited response afterwards, everybody is talking about Jamie, but we don’t see it. Perhaps the show is holding back for the finale, when we will? But again, come the dénouement, we don’t. This is perhaps not the only narrative disappointment in an otherwise hugely enjoyable show.
The story of Jamie’s mentor, Loco Chanel, is wonderful, the backstory of a drag legend that anyone would aspire to. But as the show becomes too crowded with literal and surrogate parents, the second half sets the story of Jamie’s drag progression aside in favour of more soap opera moments of paternal rejections and reconciliations. Loco Chanel becomes a sphinx without a secret, and Jamie’s drag persona Mimi Me is never seen again.
The songs are great. Dan Gillespie-Sells and Tom MacRae’s collaboration leaves the auditorium on its feet clapping at the end of the show and the front of house full of people humming and singing lines to each other on their way home. The range is wonderful, from the foot-stomping titular track to the heart-wrenching ballads The Wall In My Head and He’s My Boy, every song delivers on pop song potential and is both specific enough to fit the moment in the show perfectly and generic enough for single success.
The lead performances are all spot on. John McCrea finds the perfect combination of sass, strength and sensitivity for Jamie. Lucie Shorthouse has a sensational voice hinting at the possibility of a best friend’s unrequited love. Mina Anwar as Jamie’s Aunty Lee makes the on the nail humour hilarious. Luke Baker is equally sexy and abhorrent as the school bully on his way to a fall. Charles Dale is perfect as the fading drag star with only a back story left to tell. Kate Prince’s choreography is electrifying throughout.
Everybody’s talking about Jamie is a feel-good, triumphant, pop song sensation. It could occasionally do with a little more grime on its sequins, but it’s hard not to love.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at Sheffield Crucible until 25 February. Tickets can be found here.
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Words: Stephen M Hornby