Josie Walker

Josie Walker's work ranges from Matilda the Musical to Husband & Sons and War Horse. She's now starring in a new musical based on the real story of 16-year-old Jamie Campbell, who wanted to become a drag queen, and his supportive mother Margaret. Following a hit Sheffield run, it's currently in previews at the Apollo Theatre.

Did you know much about the story beforehand?

No, I didn't know anything when I cast as Margaret for the workshop in 2014. I knew it was based on a BBC documentary, but I think myself and John [McCrea], who plays Jamie, chose not to watch it - we just did the first take with a fresh, clean slate. Then after the workshop we watched it for fun and adored it - I'm in love with the real Margaret and Jamie.

When did you realise the show had a future life?

It always felt like something special had happened, but you never know. We did another workshop, and then felt a run might be on the cards, and finally Sheffield Crucible, and now the West End!

How much did the show change during that time?

It's grown massively. I listened to the recording of that first workshop recently and it's amazing just how much clearer the story has gotten, all the character detail. Songs have gone, new songs have come in. All credit to our creators Tom [MacRae] and Dan [Gillespie Sells], and the whole team.

Josie Walker and John McCrea
in rehearsal

Do you particularly enjoy being part of that process?

It's my favourite thing to do - it's the way I most like to work. There's not been many jobs the past few years when I haven't had that kind of input. I've had the privilege of making it a choice to work that way.

In the early days, I did more stepping into others' shoes with roles, and that's a great learning curve, but now it's much more exciting to help shape characters and be the first person to get your hands on that material. It's yours.

How much has the real Margaret influenced your performance?

It's waxed and waned. At the beginning I hadn't seen the documentary, then I did and I loved her and wanted to portray that Margaret. But she's almost touching sainthood, so there's not an awful lot of drama - in the show, we wanted to give that character more flaws and more of a journey. So we added more burdens to her shoulders and changed some of her storyline.

I've had private chats with her, which is really helpful, but I'm not playing just Margaret, or myself, or a character - it's a whole scope of experiences, including single mothers, people who've had difficult relationships with past partners and ended up bringing up a child on their own.

But she's such an incredible role model, because of the way she is with Jamie. She's unconditional love personified - it's a real example to set.

What most impressed you about her?

She completely paved the way for Jamie and made his life so much easier. It's a big transition anyway being a teenager, but she facilitated his exploration, and did it with such love. Any child finds that period of time hard - she supported him 100%.

There's so much love there - that's the word you keep coming back to, "love". It's bursting out of her. And you see Jamie now, he's like a swan, this incredible man!

John McCrea and Josie Walker
in rehearsal

Was it strange having them there while performing their story?

It was very moving to be around them. They've got their heads screwed on, there was no "I didn't say that" - they knew things would be added or changed. They're just so happy that their story is being shared, and genuinely excited.

There have been some Billy Elliot comparisons...

It's working class, an inspirational story, we're good at that! I'm a northern girl, so this is close to my heart. I recognise elements of the places I grew up, like Durham - which is where Jamie and Margaret are from - and Lancashire.

We had to break the script down and go through it with a dialect coach, so it's all correct and understandable. Jonathan [Butterell], our director, is from Sheffield, which helps. But those dialects are very specific, each place. It's imperative to get it spot on, because then it evokes that whole world.

Do you personally identify with Margaret?

I feel like we can all identify with all of these characters - that's the brilliant thing. Everything they're going through is very human. It's so beneficial to watch - it makes you engage with all those emotions within.

Sometimes you feel you need permission to be yourself, when society's telling you to be a certain way, and you can get sidelined following the crowd instead of celebrating what makes you you - an individual.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie

Has that grown in resonance?

Certainly it's something we're all questioning now, post-Brexit - who are we, where do we belong? For me there's such a huge message here, not just with a boy putting on a dress, but what happens after you do that.

Because Jamie has the courage to make that change, it has a knock-on effect on everyone around him, especially his mum - they all take a massive leap forward. Every single person on stage has a storyline, an arc, personality. I've never felt totally invested in so many different characters. It's a brilliant, complete community.

Is it tricky negotiating the tone - serious issues, but celebratory?

That happens almost by accident. We tell the story honestly, and it becomes a great night out. We've almost forgotten how to celebrate the good things in our lives. Jamie is this eternal optimist, a positive force. We're concentrating on all the negatives, the dramas unfolding - you look at papers and go "Oh, Jesus", another one of your heroes has done something awful.

There are so many Jamies and Margarets in this world. They might not be famous, but audiences love seeing real people up there. It's not about Harvey Weinstein or Theresa May. These are the people we should be celebrating in theatre.

How would you describe the score?

It's funny, I was listening to the radio in the car recently and every song took me back to some place in my life. Great pop music is so visceral. That's our score - all of these songs hit you. There's not one weak number.

Every character has their own sound, which makes a real impact. Dan is just a legend. He operates on all these different levels, his musical references are so eclectic, and people just love this music.

Josie Walker, John McCrea and
Mina Anwar in rehearsal

How have you found it vocally?

I've always had a "character" voice - it's been a long time since I've sung in my voice, so that's been absolutely lovely. But it was quite nerve-wracking prepping in Sheffield, because I've been doing plays for so long. I felt pretty exposed and vulnerable.

So I had singing lessons with Claire Moore, and everyone's been really supportive and helpful, like our producer Nica Burns, who's just so excited about the show. So gradually I've stopped thinking about acting and singing as two separate entities, and it's all come together.

Were you surprised at the show's response?

It's crazy, we only did 19 shows in Sheffield, and it seems to be sweeping the boards already at awards. There's just this tidal wave of positivity. People are saying "We needed that".

Is it a family-friendly show?

There is some strong language, though my 13-year-old niece came to see it. I think children get things on a different level - in Sheffield, we had kids there through to one guy in his nineties who came four times! It just seems to touch people. It's got that indefinable ingredient where people just connect to it and want more of it.

Are there many changes coming into the West End?

We had a thrust stage at the Crucible - now it's proscenium arch, and a smaller space. Actually I think that works really well, because it's all about intimacy and emotion, so there are times we can bring the performances down a bit to get that connection. I'm just so pleased we get to share it with more audiences.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie at Apollo Theatre until 21 April, 2018

Listen to Josie Walker sing "He's My Boy"

Watch a trailer for Everybody's Talking About Jamie below

Photo credit: Grace Wordsworth

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