Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Friday, June 29, 2018

✭✭✭✭✩

music by Dan Gillespie Sells, book & lyrics by Tom MacRae, directed by Jonathan Butterell

Sheffield Theatres, Apollo Theatre, London, GBR

November 23, 2017-booking to January 25, 2020

Margaret: “If I met myself again”

Arts groups keep wondering how to get people under 30 into the theatre. They need only look at the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to find out. The fact-based show is nominally about a 16-year-old boy who wants to be a drag queen, but the more general subject is breaking supposed societal norms and supporting the people who do so. Jamie may be the centre of the show, but his mum and his female Muslim best friend receive as many whoops and cheers as Jamie does. This is a joyful but realistic musical about the difficulties of finding out who you are and it clearly resonates with those who have recently gone through the process or who are going through it themselves.

The musical is inspired by the 2011 BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. The film is about Jamie Campbell, who grew up in an ex-mining village in County Durham, came out as gay when he was 14 and plans to attend his end of school prom in drag. Remarkably, despite expected opposition, Jamie was supported in all his decisions by his mother and several of his friends.

Director Jonathan Butterell, who had the idea for making a musical of the story, and his creative team shifted the location of the action to Sheffield, where the musical premiered in February of 2017. Jamie Campbell becomes Jamie New, yet the musical retains the essence of his story.

The action begins in the class in career training for Year 11s taught by Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll).* The class has just taken a psychometric exam and the results she hands out show what the computer has determined as the most likely career for each pupil. Hedge cautions that the students should be realistic. the profile for Jamie, who is not very good in school, reveals he would be best suited as a forklift operator. He admits to Miss Hedge that he would really like to be a performer, one of the unrealistic choices Hedge says the class should avoid considering, but what he doesn’t say out loud that he really wants to be a drag queen.

The first act concentrates on Jamie’s first exploration of being a drag queen and in the reactions of his friends and relations. It climaxes in his first appearance in a drag show. The second act concentrates on the blow to to Jamie’s plan of attending his school prom in drag and in the reactions of his friends and relations. It climaxes as the doors are opened to the prom. The strict structure of the musical reinforces the two sides of the musical – one expected, one less expected. The expected side is Jamie’s desire to express through dress and makeup the glamorous, outrageous, transgressive being he feels he is – a being which will have its own name and backstory.

The unexpected side which, in fact, makes the musical, so rich is Jamie’s realization that creating a drag persona is not the same as discovering who he really is. The musical is not a flamboyant farce like other drag-centred musicals like La Cage aux Folles (1983) or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2006). Rather, it is very much like the musical Billy Elliot (2005), except focussed on Billy’s gay friend Michael, who likes to dress up in women’s clothes and set in the present instead of in 1984-85. In Jamie the focus is not on make-believe but on real choices and how they affect those around Jamie.

As a result the main musical mode of of the show is the reflective ballad rather than the hot disco and rap numbers that open the first and second acts. In fact, the song that received the loudest and longest applause of the entire evening, “He’s My Boy”, was not sung by Jamie at all, but by his mother Margaret and it was the rising emotional expression of a mother’s unshakable love for her son so powerfully delivered by Josie Walker that it sent the audience into ecstasy.

The cast is flawless. John McCrae is so perfect as Jamie it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Jamie is unusual in music theatre as a teen who is already out and is used to deflecting the few slurs sung his way. The show is about Jamie’s second coming out as a drag queen which is portrayed as even more difficult. McCrae portrays Jamie as a young effeminate man with a quick wit who will exaggerate his effeminacy to silence criticism.

Yet, this being a realistic work, McCrae also shows that beneath the instinctive defence mechanisms that Jamie has developed lie the most essential doubts. The one word that stings Jamie the most is “disgusting” which his now-estranged father called him when he saw Jamie at a young age dressing in his mum’s clothes. McCrae beautifully depicts the fear and excitement of taking his first steps into the drag world as well as the complex realization that creating a drag persona does not actually help him know himself any better. McCrae, besides exuding a natural likability, has a voice very much like Olly Alexander of the group Year & Years and has mastered the difficulty of dancing in his signature high heeled platform pumps. Though Jamie is given fast-paced songs, probably the one that has the greatest impact is slow, reflective song “The Wall In My Head”, movingly sung by McCrae, where Jamie sings about the barrier he feels he’s making against his second coming out.

While Jamie is the centre of attention, his mother Margaret is the the force behind him that gives him his strength. As portrayed by Josie Walker, she is a generally unhappy middle-aged woman, unconcerned about her looks who is fiercely committed to her son. She is given the two most emotional, most excerptable ballads in the show – “If I Met Myself Again” and “He's My Boy” – which Walker, with her powerful voice, uses to reveal the unbreakable strength that lies within Margaret’s otherwise unassuming ways.

Jamie’s principal ally in school is the girl Pritti Pasha, who is cursed by having a Hindu first name though she is actually a Muslim. While Jamie is not good in his studies, Pritti, who hopes to be a doctor, is very good and helps Jamie with his revising. The creators are aware that the relation between a shy, sensitive straight girl and a flamboyant, gay boy will likely have its own tensions. They give her a lovely ballad “It Means Beautiful” that Pritti sings to Jamie when he is low and later reprises when she is alone. Lucie Shorthouse gives a wonderfully sympathetic performance as Pritti and with her soft-edged but strong voice uses the song praising Jamie also to suggest the unrequited longing that underlies her attraction to him. One of the most heartening moments in the show was to experience how Shorthouse’s performance received such a rapturous response. One thought that at least in the context of this musical an audience was enlightened enough to see past Pritti’s hijab and see her as a person.

Memorable secondary characters include Shobna Gulati as Ray, Margaret’s best friend and comic foil who is as committed to supporting Jamies as his mum. Tamsin Carroll is the beleaguered careers teacher Miss Hedge, who only gets a chance to show her fine singing ability in the song “Work of Art”. She could easily have been made a source of ridicule, but the creators and Carroll present her as a woman all too aware that her present position is no model of success and she wins our sympathy as well. Phil Nicol is Hugo, the owner of a drag supply house and former drag queen himself. The comedy is that, as Nicol plays it, the out-of-shape Hugo seems the least likely person to have been a drag queen, yet once we see him in drag, Nicol makes us see how limited our perception has been.

Ken Christiansen is grimly effective in the unenviable role as Jamie’s thoroughly unpleasant dad, who, unbeknownst to Jamie, has never stopped hating his “disgusting” son. Jamie’s main antagonist at school is Dean Paxton well played by Luke Baker. Set as it is in the present, the creators make clear that Paxton’s homophobia directed against Jamie and Islamophobia directed against Pritti are minority opinions unsupported by the majority of the Year 11s. Though the creators do not emphasize it, Baker suggests that Dean’s obsession with Jamie and Pritti have more to do with his jealousy of Jamie’s popularity and with a conflicted attraction to Jamie himself.

There are two flaws in the story. One is the forced, unlikely and unnecessary reconciliation of Jamie and Dean at the end. The other is the failure to deal more fully with the instability of being a drag queen as a profession. The show presents four examples of older drag queen – Hugo, who has become a failure, and three who work at the seedy Legs Eleven Club humorously played by Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob. None can be viewed as models of success and the over-optimistic view of the musical is that Jamie somehow has the potential to be a huge success in the drag world and move beyond Sheffield unlike four examples we see.

Kate Prince’s choreography is very inventive and includes references to voguing (quite appropriate for the subject) and to tecktonic that have seldom appeared in musicals. All the dance sequences are executed with aplomb by the principals and eight-member chorus. Except for a few excursions into rap, Sells and MacRae stay mainly with a 1970s pop music idiom heavily focussed on power ballads for introspection and disco for the big dance numbers.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a rousing musical in itself. But what makes the experience even more invigorating is to see an audience so involved with the feelings of outsiders like Jamie and Pritti and so sympathetic to older adults like Margaret and Miss Hedge. The inclusivity of the musical seems to inspire an inclusivity of response in the audience and the notion that, despite dispiriting daily news, tolerance and acceptance can win out. The enthusiasm of the under 30s for the show only strengthens that hope.

Christopher Hoile

*As of January 28, 2019, the cast will be: Layton Williams (Jamie), Hayley Tamaddon (Miss Hedge), Sejal Keshwala (Ray), Sabrina Sandhu (Pritti Pasha), Shane Richie (Hugo/Loco Chanelle), Marlon G Day (Dad), Momar Diagne, Zahra Jones (Becca), Luke Latchman (Sayid), Ziggy Tyler Taylor (Levi), Alex Anstey (Laika Virgin), Luke Baker (Dean Paxton), Courtney Bowman (Fatimah), James Gillan (Tray Sophisticay), Ryan Hughes (Mickey), Daniel Jacob (Sandra Bollock), Melissa Jacques, Emily Kenwright (Vicki), Jordan Laviniere (Cy) Rebecca McKinnis (Margaret New), and Harriet Payne (Bex).

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) John McCrae as Jamie and Josie Walker as Margaret; John McCrae as Jamie with ensemble; John McCrae as Jamie and Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti. © 2017 Alastair Muir. 

For tickets, visit www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk.