As has become traditional, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took ourselves off for a few days break in London between Christmas and New Year to see some shows (makes a change), have some nice meals (makes a change), and treat ourselves to something in the sales. I got three shirts and she got a jacket and trousers, if you’re interested. The first of our four post-Christmas shows was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which I wanted to see earlier in the year in Sheffield but just couldn’t fit it in to our schedule. Two friends saw it up there and enjoyed it hugely. I have to confess though, one of the reasons I really wanted to see it is because I hadn’t been to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for decades. Checking back, my last show there was on 29th October 1982, when I saw that very dull play Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets. It starred Hair’s Annabel Leventon, Nicholas Nickleby’s John Woodvine and Skippy’s Ed Devereaux.
But I digress. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell and his mum Margaret. Jamie featured in the BBC3 documentary about himself, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, as a teenager who wanted to go to the school prom wearing a dress. The creative team deliberately didn’t meet Jamie and Margaret until after the show had been thoroughly worked through, because they wanted the freedom to create their own characters who tell their own story. The real Jamie and Margaret didn’t actually see the show until its first night – and by all accounts it’s extraordinary how close the show is to their own real-life experience.
Jamie New (no longer Campbell) stands out somewhat at his school, and not just because he’s the tallest. He’s openly gay and very camp, but most of his contemporaries simply accept him the way he is. The girls are his pals, the boys swap banter with him; but he’s besties with Pritti, who’s also on the edge of school society, being the school swot and a hijab-wearing Muslim. He lives with his very supportive Mum, and gets on great with her best friend Ray. There are only three flies in his ointment: his dad, who can’t come to terms with his son’s sexuality and behaviour; school bully Dean, for whom Jamie is a natural target; and careers teacher Miss Hedge, who wants to encourage Jamie to become something that he isn’t. Jamie’s dream is to be a drag queen, and Miss Hedge can’t see a future in that; she agrees with the computer assessment that he should be a forklift truck driver (#yeahright). And then, for his 16th birthday, Jamie’s mum buys him a new pair of shoes…
If any show cried out Instant Hit, this is it! Dan Gillespie Sells’ (yes, he of The Feeling) music is as bright, appealing and entertaining as you might expect, and Tom Macrae’s lyrics and book (co-written with director Jonathan Butterell) are smart, witty and emotional in all the right places. The songs do just the right thing, by moving the plot forward and complementing our understanding of the characters. Anna Fleischle’s set design is crackingly effective, with what would double as Shirley Valentine’s kitchen for Jamie’s home environment and a versatile arrangement of school desks for almost everything else. And Jamie’s story has feelgood factor written through it like a stick of rock; you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to come away from this show unmoved.
Another great plus is that the largely unknown cast is full of surprises! Fifteen of them are making their West End debut, and their own freshness and excitement really communicates itself to the audience. The ensemble of schoolkids sing and dance with great verve and vivacity, their individual characterisations sparking off each other to great effect. Luke Baker’s Dean is far more than a mere stock villain, as he effectively portrays the character’s essential loneliness, and how out of touch he is with his contemporaries, as much as his antagonism towards Jamie. Lucie Shorthouse is a terrific discovery as the kind-hearted, conservative but feisty Pritti. It’s a great role, and she gave me an insight into a teenage Muslim girl’s life that I’ve never experienced before; plus Ms Shorthouse has a voice to die for, with a richness and maturity way beyond her years.
There’s some genuinely fabulous drag queenery from Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob as the trio Laika Virgin, Tray Sophisticay and Sandra Bollock; it comes as no surprise to find out that two of these performers have their own real-life drag alter-egos, and I’m guessing from the huge cheer for Mr Jacob at curtain call that there were a few Royal Vauxhall Tavern die-hards in the audience that afternoon! What did surprise me was to see comedy stand-up Phil Nichol, whom we’d seen trying out Edinburgh material earlier in the year, taking the role of Hugo, a.k.a. inspirational drag queen Loco Chanelle. Mr Nichol is the kind of person the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to dislike because he’s good at everything. He superbly conveys the generosity and sadness of the character with a very honest and moving performance – and he’s not backward in coming forward with the glitter either.
Tamsin Carroll, whom we last saw as a brilliant Charity Barnum in Chichester a few years ago, again excels as the bossy but strangely vivacious Miss Hedge; it’s a difficult task to make an unsympathetic character likeable, but she achieves it. Josie Walker is extraordinary as Margaret, portraying the character’s powerful combination of support and self-doubt, and her performance of the song “He’s My Boy” almost stopped the show. There’s excellent support from Mina Anwar as the down-to-earth Ray and Ken Christiansen as Jamie’s dad, effectively conveying his brutality and cruelty whilst never becoming the panto baddie.
But the night definitely belongs to John McCrea as Jamie. Instantly likeable, you’re on his side from the very start, just willing the character on to better and greater things. Mr McCrea absolutely captures that sense of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence in a young person who’s finding their way and discovering who they are. As his confidence grows so does the audience’s support, and we all go on his journey together. Mr M has an amazing stage presence and knows precisely how to wrap us all around his little finger. We hug him in his hours of need, we rejoice at his triumphs. Messrs Macrae and Butterell have written a humdinger of a role, with some brilliant lines and plenty of opportunities to shine; and Mr McCrea takes them and makes the best of them all.
One of those rare events; a British musical that really works, performed by a stunning cast that gets it right 100%. Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and I expect they will for some time to come. Unmissable!
Production photos by Johan Persson and Alistair Muir