Saturday, 25 November 2017

Theatre review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie

In what must be the first West End musical to be based on a BBC3 documentary, Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae's (book and lyrics) Everybody's Talking About Jamie transfers to the Apollo from Sheffield, where it's set and where it premiered earlier this year. Jamie (John McCrea) is 16 and facing pretty dispiriting careers advice from his sour-faced form teacher Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll,) but he's already got very different and specific plans for how to make a living: He's never really been in the closet about his sexuality but the fact that he's always liked dressing up in his mother's clothes is more of a secret; but now, realising that it can actually be a job (there's a hat-tip to "Our Lady RuPaul,") he wants to be a drag queen when he grows up, and sees no reason not to get started straight away.

His mother Margaret (Josie Walker) and her best friend Ray (Mina Anwar) have always been supportive to the point of shielding him from reality a bit, but to make it as a performer Jamie will need to get his sometimes hostile classmates behind him as well.

You can't accuse Everybody's Talking About Jamie of reinventing the wheel in terms of its story - it's heartwarming fare in which Jamie gets over hoping for approval from his vile father and finds a lot more people are willing to embrace him for who he is; while he also learns to smooth over some of his own more obnoxious edges. As well as Hugo/Loco Chanelle (Phil Nichol,) who sells him his first dress, Jamie also gets a trio of drag godmothers in Laika Virgin (Alex Anstey,) Tray Sophisticay (James Gillan) and Sandra Bollock (Daniel Jacob,) who help him through his first public perfmance.

But in the execution of this story it doesn't put a high-heeled foot wrong. Sells' musical style is familiar from his band The Feeling, and is a good fit for the stage while not being traditional musical theatre fare. The upbeat numbers work best, starting with the insanely catchy opener "Don't Even Know It" (one of three tracks you can preview on the official website - it's like they've been paying attention to the conversation among theatre Twitter about how new musicals used to make sure a few songs were out there to whet people's appetite, and how they seem to struggle more when they don't.)

In fact the show seems to strike a great balance between traditional musical theatre and something more up-to-date in its themes. There's certainly a topicality to the central issue of what constitutes a real man, and Jamie's dad's (Ken Christiansen) narrow definition of it resulting in the most toxic variety of masculinity. Jamie's other nemesis is the only classmate not to be fascinated by his drag ambition, bully Dean (Luke Baker,) whose story satisfyingly avoids the cliché of the homophobe who'll turn out to be secretly gay, instead ending on something a bit more poignant. There's also a pleasingly casual diversity to a dramatis personae with not one but two named characters in hijabs, and while initially the role of Jamie's best friend Pritti feels underwritten, Lucie Shorthouse eventually gets her own big number in "It Means Beautiful," her gradually increasing prominence fitting in with Jamie's own journey of understanding that everything isn't always about him.

Walker is the emotional standout in the cast, something that was particularly obvious sitting between Vanessa and my Mum, either of whom could tell you how much they enjoyed a show measured in tears cried: When Walker looked like she was about to go into her second big emotional number "He's My Boy," Mum got a tissue out of her sleeve before she'd even sung a note. But Jonathan Butterell - the director was also the one to first suggest the documentary would make a good musical - has a strong cast all round, with choreographer Kate Prince giving the younger members a few moments that mix street dance into more traditional musical choreography to keep the feel of this being fresh and unpredictable within a familiar structure.

Overall this is a triumph - I fear for any new musical without star names attached, regardless of how good its reviews are (and the papers have been very positive,) but I hope that the enthusiastic reception this got from this afternoon's audience is something that'll spread and make it a word-of-mouth hit. If the title proves prohpetic and everyone does start talking about Jamie, there's a big British musical here well deserving of being a hit.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae is booking until the 21st of April at the Apollo Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

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