Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th March 2020

89071000_226884608705120_6218514948369154048_nEverybody’s been Talking About Jamie since it hit (and I mean hit) the Sheffield Crucible back in 2017. I’d heard great things about it but couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedules. However, we did see it in London in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is currently touring the UK until August whilst continuing to pack them in at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Touring, whilst retaining its West End presence, is something that normally only the big boys of musical theatre can achieve, which means that Jamie is now officially a Big Boy of Musical Theatre.

JamieYou’ll know the story of course, but in brief: Sheffield-based Jamie New (based on the real-life Jamie Campbell) is coming up to his 16th birthday. He knows – and everyone knows – that he’s gay; what they don’t know is his secret ambition to become a drag queen. Fortunately, his mum Margaret, and her best friend Ray support him completely in his quest to be The Real Jamie. However, there are drawbacks. His dad simply can’t accept his son’s sexuality, let alone his ostentatious appearance. His school arch-enemy, the bully Dean, does everything he can to scupper Jamie’s lifestyle. Even careers adviser, Miss Hedge, wants him to be a fork-lift truck driver – I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t entirely have the measure of him. The school prom is looming; will Jamie manage to realise his dream of attending the prom in a dress (and not just any old dress), or will the powers that be oppress him back into a gender-stereotypical conservative outfit that won’t offend the other school parents?

Loco and the girlsThe loving heart of this show is its message of acceptance and encouragement to be yourself – don’t give in to bullies and don’t be persuaded that you can’t realise your dream. None of these big ideas are forced or heavily delivered; it all flows lightly and naturally from the very believable characters. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about Everybody’s Talking about Jamie; it’s just school life (which we all recognise or remember), parent- and teacher-management which is an art we all (hopefully) develop, confronting down your bullies, and emerging shining at the end. And if you want to do it in a fabulous dress then no one’s gonna stop you.

Jamie and HugoThere are so many positives about the show, and this current touring production. Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s songs are still fresh, funny, telling and memorable; the book is witty, emotional in all the right places, and is populated with some great characters. Benjamin Holder’s band whack out the numbers with showbizzy panache, and Kate Prince’s choreography is lively, fun, and calls for some great set piece routines that knock your socks off.

Jamie and the castAnd then there are the performances. When I saw John McCrea play Jamie in London, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered; but this tour stars Layton Williams as Jamie and so I have to think again. I first saw Mr Williams in the New Adventures’ Lord of the Flies six years ago when you could already see he was a star in the making. He was superb in the ensemble of Hairspray the following year, and then he was a brilliant Paul in Kiss Me Kate at Sheffield – his Too Darn Hot dance had to be seen to be believed. No surprise that he absolutely owns both the stage and the role as Jamie; it’s a perfect opportunity for his dance, acting and comedic skills to come to the fore. Supremely confident and skilful; it’s a great performance.

Jamie and DeanI also loved Shane Richie as Hugo, the tired, disillusioned ex-performer who brings his drag creation Loco Chanelle out of retirement in order to encourage Jamie into doing what he wants. I had no idea he could sing and dance so impressively! There’s terrific support from Lara Denning as Miss Hedge, and Shobna Gulati as Ray, and George Sampson makes an excellent villain in the form of Dean, exuding nastiness from every pore. Garry Lee, JP McCue and Rhys Taylor form a great triumvirate of drag queens, a mixture of faded glamour and gruff mateyness. Sharan Phull is superb in the fascinating and assertive role of Jamie’s bestie Pritti, and the ensemble of school students gives us some stunning song and dance routines – a true joy to watch. But Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret brings the house down with her moving and powerful rendition of He’s My Boy, which stops us all in our tracks and can coax a tear out of the most hard-hearted audience member.

Jamie and PrittiEverybody’s Talking about Jamie – and he and his show will be the talk of the town for the rest of the week. A brilliant portrayal of the power of the individual, this one’s never going to go away. A must-see!

P. S. I (briefly) met the real Jamie at last year’s West End Eurovision. He was wearing a headdress that almost touched the ceiling. I think he’s overcoming his shyness.

P. P. S. Writer Tom MacRae, who comes from Northampton, was in the Press Night audience – and Layton Williams invited him on to the stage to give a charming but empowering short speech about realising your dreams. Good man yourself, Mr MacRae!

Five Alive, let Theatre thrive!

Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, 27th December 2017

Everybody's Talking About JamieAs 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.

jamie3But 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.

Jamie1Jamie 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…

ETAJ1If 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.

ETAJ2Another 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.

Jamie7There’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.

Jamie5Tamsin 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.

ETAJ3But 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.

Jamie6One 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