A joyful celebration of the power of embracing what makes a person special, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is one of the most exciting new British musicals in a long time.
The tale of a working class boy who just wanted to be fabulous, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie could be looked at as a prequel, of sorts, for Kinky Boots, a kind of “origin story” for a Lola-type character. In 2017, a traditional teenage coming out story is all too passé, but the new angle of schoolboy Jamie New coming out as a drag artist has all the same potential for strife and sorrow plus extra lashings of glamour.
The project began when the fifteen-year-old real life Jamie wrote to a swag of documentary companies proposing coverage of him attending his high school prom wearing a dress. The musical was commissioned by Sheffield Crucible for a February 2017 season. Prolific producer and West End theatre owner Nica Burns caught the final matinee, and has brought the show to Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of London’s West End.
Writers Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae (book and lyrics) have expanded the original concept of director and co-writer Jonathan Butterell to craft an uplifting musical that touches the heart while never really feeling like an issue-based story. Although every musical ever written should feel natural when characters break into song, it is a credit to the skill of the writers, and testament to the suitability of the concept for the show, that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has this quality in abundance.
Another special quality of the show is the fact that all 19 members of the ensemble cast play distinct, diverse characters. There is a “chorus” of students, but each of them is unique, a fact that is recognised by giving every member of the cast their own bow in the curtain calls.
Butterell keeps energy high, then reigns the focus in for a set of moving moments in act two. Humour is well judged, with lines of dialogue that could be somewhat simple sounding all the funnier with the sarcastic Northern delivery.
Choreographer Kate Prince delivers high voltage moves that capture the explosive energy of restless adolescents. Watching students in uniforms dance on school desks brings to mind the high point of such numbers: “Baggy Trousers” in Our House (2002).
Anna Fleischle’s design maximises the moderate budget with a flexible playing space that is enhanced with projections and props. The working class grey of Sheffield is omnipresent, helping to explain the allure of the fabulous world of drag.
Jamie seeks to try out his style as a drag artiste at local Sheffield club, Legs Eleven, where he encounters a gaggle of fellow performers. As a point of difference to the likes of Kinky Boots and La Cage Aux Folles, the drag queens of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are a tad older and broader of beam.
One interesting difference in specific comparison to Kinky Boots is in the turning point conflict in act two of each of these shows. While Charlie’s outburst of frustration and anger in Kinky Boots comes across as rather forced and artificial, Jamie’s harsh words to his dear Mum cut right to the heart. Margaret, mother of Jamie, follows this fierce moment with the beautiful anthem “He’s My Son,” making the daily conflict all the more affecting.
John McCrea originated the role of Jamie, and has the role in his blood at this stage. Jamie is quickly established as a resilient youth with a loving, supportive mother. There are issues with Jamie’s father, and McCrea deepens the character by showing Jamie’s inner fragility, which can bubble up in anxiety at any moment. McCrea portrays Jamie as an extraordinary example of self confidence and self belief that would surely be inspirational to any young audience member.
At this performance, Margaret New was played by Rebecca McKinnis, who unleashed powerhouse vocals and a wholly relatable persona as Jamie’s self-sacrificing mother.
Mina Anwar brings enormous warmth to the role of Margaret’s neighbour and best friend, Ray.
Lucie Shorthouse enhances the role of Jamie’s best friend Pritti to make her more interesting and intriguing than a conscientious Muslim student. Similarly, Luke Baker deepens the role of bully Dean, bringing out the boy’s simmering insecurity. All of these characterful aspects, of course, originate from the insightful writing and skilful direction.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a fun night at the theatre, and is well deserving of its place in the pantheon of culturally significant original musicals. The new musical would surely be just as well received in Australia.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was reviewed 7.30pm Monday 22 January 2018 at Apollo Theatre, London.
Photos: #1, #3, #4, #5, #7 Alastair Muir; #2, #6 Jonah Persson