Saturday 20th January 2018 at the Apollo Theatre, London.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is truly a reflection of our times and the leaps of progress being made by the young and the bold. As a story, it speaks to that gut feeling of support for someone brave and our indignation when we see someone treated poorly without just cause. It speaks to the young and angst-ridden just as loudly as it speaks to older generations, offering one resounding message: be exactly who you are no matter what. As a musical, it feels fresh, modern and proudly so; songs like And You Don’t Even Know It, the energetic opening number, along with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Work of Art feel current and punchy – fun and riotous all at once. The musical is based on the real story of Jamie Campbell, a 16 year old in County Durham in 2011 with the aspiration to be a drag queen and a determination to attend his school prom in a dress. Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 was a subsequent BBC3 documentary directed by Jenny Popplewell and made at Jamie’s request. By some lucky twist of fate, the right people with the right influences saw that documentary and decided to bring it to the stage, firstly at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield before this transfer to London’s West End. Is it a hit? Most definitely.
Director and co-writer Jonathan Butterell offers us relatable scenes of average teen life which is every so often interrupted with high energy musical numbers to propel us forward through the narrative of Jamie’s evolution from shy daydreamer with secret dreams to the bona fide teen drag star who overcame it all – and didn’t forget his friend along the way. Having transferred from Sheffield to the West End, this doesn’t feel like the usual high production value musical you’ll find on Shaftesbury Avenue at any given time, and that works very much in its favour. In bypassing great scenes of spectacle and sequins in favour of realism complimented with a few well placed numbers, the story is kept vitally relatable and accessible; Jamie is extraordinary and inspirational precisely because although it feels like fiction, it’s a true story, so keeping some realism is essential to preserving the power of that origin. I also love that the northern accents have remained intact – the accent gives the script warmth and humour which would certainly have been a sore loss.
With a warm and funny script featuring modern quips, a salute to Ru Paul, Queen of drag and offering teens knowledge of the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst through flippant comparison with Beyoncé, it’s no wonder the show hit the ground running. Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae’s music and lyrics also have a big hand in the lasting impression of fresh modernity with songs that are enthusiastic and full of defiance and softer numbers in which our characters invite us into their mental anguish; songs like Jamie’s first ballad, The Wall in My Head and his mother’s tale of regret and sorrow in If I Met Myself Again and He’s My Boy. Top those combinations off with a brilliant finale song to hammer home your message and you’ve got yourself a winner. Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong) does that perfectly – so spot on is that finale for this production that I half expected a proud P!nk to arrive on stage for a mash-up of Perfect and Raise Your Glass…
It’s a joyous opening scene of teen spirit from the ensemble, who create a rowdy classroom with great spirit and humour with choreography from Kirstie Skivington which nicely taps into the overriding tone of simmering expectation underlying any lesson in which such an unruly gaggle like this sits. John McCrea plays the eponymous Jamie New and he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. I think we may have a new cult character to rub shoulders with fan favourites at fancy dress parties everywhere pretty soon. McCrea certainly gives a memorable performance in this very physically demanding show which must be agony on the ankles and knees but is consequently a gift on the eyes. Jamie is a beautifully well rounded character and McCrea offers us every colour of emotion in a teen’s formative years. He’s sweet, kind and funny; giving the production some of its best slapstick and diva moments (the eyebrow and shoe reveal scenes in particular I remember with great clarity and fondness) while never being too far away from deep anxiety or rage which bubble up out of his fun-loving character just in time for another musical number to set the tone. His chemistry with Rebecca McKinnis, who played his mother, Margaret New at this performance, is gentle and giving. Theirs has to be a relationship to melt hearts and these two do so with great gravity.
While Everybody’s Talking About Jamie doesn’t stand up to the towering spectacle of other shows featuring drag characters, it does feature some wonderful drag comedy via the Drag Queen duo Alex Anstey as Laika Virgin and Daniel Jacob as Sandra Bollock. The pair get big laughs in their star turn as ageing women played by ageing drag queens. They are joined by the slightly more glamorous James Gillan as Tray Sophisticay and young Miss Loco Channelle while the wonderfully warm and witty Phil Nichol offers us the classic gutsy take on a seasoned pro out to pasture as Hugo Battersby, once the great Miss Loco Channelle. Also lightening the mood at any given moment is Mina Anwar who plays the spirited, potty-mouthed best friend-come-surrogate-mother for Jamie in the absence of his father. Always with a bargain in hand and a quip on the tip of her tongue, the character is quickly a firm favourite. But Anwar also gives the character some measured grit when Jamie’s behaviour warrants a reality check; she’s on hand to do it via a verbal fluffy choke hold and a nose kiss.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jamie’s Dad, played at this performance by Spencer Stafford. Every show needs a villain, and Stafford makes a strong one; prejudiced, tunnel-visioned and the representative of every father who dismissed a gay son, Stafford presents that haze of confusion and disappointment of a failing parent. A far gentler villain can be found in Tamsin Carroll who plays the exasperated Miss Hedge who can’t even get year 11 to answer simple questions, never mind deal with the controversy of an angered parent challenging the brave decisions of a drag queen teen. But the character is given comic moments to allow that balance between obtuse grown up and an unlikely heroine for later on. Luke Baker gives a great performance as the mean but tragically flawed bully Dean Paxton; yet while I understand the need for resolution between Jamie and Paxton, I’d have preferred to see Jamie winning and Dean sulking if I’m completely honest…
Perhaps the most impressive performance other than McCrea’s is that of Courtney Bowman who played Pritti Pasha at this performance. A vital character in so many ways, Bowman demands affection as soon as she begins to dart those anxious eyes with such uncertainty. Here we have a character who is a) a BAME female , b) wears a headscarf and c) not a size 0.001. That representation matters and right now, that’s just one of the things making Jamie such a refreshing, important new piece of theatre. Pritti begins as the wallflower brainiac who lingers outside the circle and simply waits for a brighter future…but she’s also that classic teenager who is empowered by the anxiety of those around her – the only thing to snap her out of her own anxiety is seeing Jamie’s. Not only does Pritti capture our hearts, she also makes us laugh – and laugh loudly. Bowman sings It Means Beautiful like it’s the last thing she’ll ever sing, she enthuses us with her adorable over-excitedness and she surprises in ways both hilarious and inspiring. The evolution of Pritti in this production is only a stone’s throw away from Jamie’s in terms of importance; schools contain many Jamies and many Prittis- they represent a whole cross-section of teenagers in need of heroes just like these two brilliant characters.
It’s a story which follows nimbly in the footsteps of La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and I hope it enjoys similar longevity. While these LGBTQ+ stories carry similarities, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels different, because it takes place in an everyday setting (a school/home) with very little spectacle of drag-tastic sequences and Jamie’s crises of confidence feels more immediate because of his age. I think in this musical we have a real beacon of light for young people, whether LGBTQ+ or not, looking for stories they can relate to which aren’t necessarily outlandish (although the show does feature some brilliant moments of drag comedy) but very much recognisable in those school and domestic settings. As I said at the start, this production is an important one, because it speaks to every part of your empathy for someone struggling and your indignation at the poor treatment of those considered other. As a great admirer of drag, I enjoyed this show. As someone who works with LGBTQ+ young people, I loved this show. As someone with a close friend who was terrified of their own sexuality as a teen and crippled by their imaginings of people’s reception of it for years, I adored this show. I think even without any such personal resonance, this production tells a great tale of resilience, self-love and acceptance and I hope it enjoys a long and successful run. It also features one of the best closing scenes in a musical I’ve seen – can anyone say unstoppable Queen?!
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is playing at the Apollo Theatre and you can get your tickets here!