BWW Review: EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE, Crucible, Sheffield
There surely can't be many musicals written on the back of a chance viewing of a BBC Three documentary - but when director Jonathan Butterell caught Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 on TV and was captivated by the story of aspiring drag queen Jamie Campbell, an idea began to form. In an almost fairy tale-like development, one day Michael Ball asked Butterell to meet with a couple of writers devising a new musical. Those writers were Dan Gillespie Sells of band The Feeling, and TV writer Tom MacRae... and the three men began to work together to develop the new musical, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, which premiered in Sheffield this week.
The show has a lot to live up to, with musicals This is My Family and Flowers for Mrs Harris receiving awards and acclaim after debuting in the Crucible Theatre, but ...Jamie doesn't so much step into their shoes as replace them with a huge pair of red Jimmy Choos and then stomp all over the stage.
Loosely based on the lives of Jamie Campbell and his mother Margaret, the plot is relatively straightforward - 16 year-old Jamie New (John McCrea - in a fantastically physical and effervescent performance) and his friends are coming to the end of their time at school and their careers teacher is forcing them to think about the future. Jamie has one wish - to become a drag queen - and he'd also like to attend the school prom as his alter ego, but can he overcome the obstacles in the way?
The story ticks many of the boxes of a coming-of-age tale: bullying and standing up to the bullies, the possibilities and potential of youth vs the disillusionment of adulthood, family strife, peer pressure, finding your own identity. It also throws in an older mentor/drag mother figure in the shape of drag shop owner Hugo (Charles Dale), AKA the legendary Loco Chanel, to point out to Jamie how far things have come and induct the youngster into (Hugo/Loco's version of) drag herstory.
The writers stress in the programme that they didn't want to tell a story of a young man coming out as gay; rather they wanted to take a gay character whose sexuality is largely accepted and find a new angle. It's true that it is refreshing for a story about a gay teen not to be about accepting their sexuality, although you could argue that there is still a coming-out narrative in terms of both Jamie's drag ego and his in-and-out-of-drag desire to wear dresses and heels.
Sometimes it feels as though the battles Jamie and the other characters face in the show are too easily won - most of them are resolved neatly, and the one that isn't (Jamie's struggle with his homophobic father) arguably doesn't have as huge an emotional impact as you might expect.
However, in many ways, this will come across as a relief. Too often, the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals focus so much on struggles and hardships - rightly so, in many cases, but it makes a refreshing change to have a story that is generally just positive and joyous; one that lets its audience (and cast) let their hair loose a bit and have a good time - to celebrate, rather than sigh. It doesn't deny that there are hard times - but it shows that these don't have to define us.
Away from Jamie's story, there are also some nice touches in the development of some of the supporting cast. All of Jamie's classmates, even those with few lines, feel like distinctive, fleshed-out characters in their own right, with geeky Muslim best friend Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse) standing out as a refreshingly rich character who also gets to perform two of the biggest showstopper songs in the show - when she and the other girls sing "Spotlight" in Act 1, the whole show ramps up a gear and moves from a grittier High School Musical to something really unique, really British, and really special.
The kids don't get all the best moments though, with many of the adults having their turn to shine. In particular, Josie Walker's Margaret is one of the most believable fictional mums I've seen in ages. Costume and hair make her look like a real person rather than a caricature of a mother, but so do her dialogue and storyline. She is sentimental, but also realistic, down-to-earth but still full of dreams for her son - she will both break and lift your heart. Her best friend, Lee (Mina Anwar, having the time of her life) is the kind of loud-and-proud character that could easily steal every scene, but Margaret is so lovingly written and performed that you can't take your eyes off Walker.
The combination of MacRae, Gillespie Sells and director Butterell has clearly been a creative success - their enthusiasm for the project and their joy at working as a team comes through in the programme notes and clearly translates to the stage. The show is a great big beaming smile. Buoyed by an audience clearly out for a celebration from the start, the cast exude energy - and with several set changes in addition to their scenes, they rarely leave the stage throughout, a demanding ask of the younger cast members in particular, who get the bulk of the fast-paced dance routines.
If I were to pick faults, some of the supporting adult characters are underdeveloped - Jamie's dad, his teacher and the three drag queens he and Loco Chanel share a stage with all feel a little caricatured. There were also a few duff notes in the opening number - although these can easily be explained as nerves, as the singing improved after this (and with the press, the writers, the director AND the real Jamie and Margaret in attendance, anyone would feel nervous!). Some of the 'Sheffield' accents go wandering at times. And, as mentioned, the plot isn't exactly complex.
But these things are all minor. The script and the lyrics are frequently hilarious - and the laughs are shared out across the characters. The music is uplifting and memorable - leaving the theatre, there were three groups of people at my bus stop, ranging from teens to the over-65s, all effusing about the show and breaking into bursts of song.
The stage design is slick and effective, transitioning us quickly between locations. It was also lovely to have the band visible above the stage, rather than hidden in the orchestra pit. The whole piece fizzes with excitement - and will appeal to anyone from secondary school upwards. It deserves a big audience, because the atmosphere of a full, and excited, theatre helped lift and sustain the performances.
The show received the quickest standing ovation I've ever seen - as soon as the final note of the closing ensemble song rang out, the entire audience were on their feet. And after the cast took their bows, the real Jamie and Margaret Campbell were brought onto the stage. Tears and hugs with their stage counterparts brought home just how poignant and life-affirming this production is - and then the cast melted away, leaving Jamie and Margaret embracing each other.
The reminder that this is not just a fun story, but one that Jamie and his mum have lived, and continue to live, brought many of the audience to tears. Everybody's talking about Everybody's Talking About Jamie? If not, they really should be.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 25 Feb. Tickets.
Photo by Johan Persson