Everybody's Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, review: a Billy Elliot for the gender-fluid age

A hit in Sheffield early this year, this musical about a teenage drag queen proves just as irresistible as it transfers to the West End

Paul Taylor
Thursday 23 November 2017 12:28
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Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre
Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre

It’s no wonder that everybody’s talking about Jamie. This show – which premiered last February at the Sheffield Crucible – is irresistible: a joyous, life-affirming Billy Elliot for an age struggling with the fluidities of gender identity.

It was inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary about Jamie Campbell, the 16-year-old County Durham schoolboy with ambitions to be a drag queen. The musical shifts the story to a council estate in Sheffield and to Jamie’s comprehensive, where his classmates fling themselves round the desks with meticulous hip-hop agility as a fantasy backing group. Kate Prince’s witty S Club choreography is superb.

The school year is coming to an end and psychometric tests have identified Jamie as a potential fork-lift truck-driver. It’s the sort of helpful advice that might have pointed RuPaul to a career in funeral direction. What we have here, though, is not your conventional coming-out story. Jamie New (as he’s now called) has never really been in. He’s openly gay; he can fend off homophobic taunts from the handsome class bully with humour and honesty, and he has the devoted support of his hard-up single mum. For his 16th birthday, she’s bought him the shiny red platform stilettos with which he takes his first shaky steps into his adult future.

Nonetheless, he’s anxious about revealing to that he has his heart set in going to the school prom wearing a dress. His estranged father’s disgusted reaction when he caught his eight-year-old son dressing up in his mother’s clothes created (in the words of one Kylie-esque song, a “Wall in My Head”) a barrier that he has to keep climbing.

The sense of Jamie on the threshold of possibilities, trying out the selves he could become and experimenting with the ways he might express his feminine side (through the drag persona of “Mimi Me” or through the undefended simplicity of being “just a boy in a dress”, or both), is captured in the extraordinary bravura of John McCrea’s performance. He has exactly the right mix of sass and sensitivity and strength. Fearless and vulnerable, he portrays Jamie as a gangly strutting one-off – like what you might get if some rare, pale species of giraffe were to pick up the ability to cavort around on high heels.

Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman of the The Feeling, has written an immensely attractive score – bobbing along with a melodic pop bounce and catchy rhythmic insistence and rising to the emotional occasion with some eloquently poignant power ballads. The lyrics are by Tom MacRaem, who also wrote the gritty, warmly humorous (slightly Corrie-ish) book.

The variety of mood is constantly surprising. When Jamie tries to turn himself into a living work of art, the anthemic song is the tart stepson of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” (“You’re Yoko Ono on vinyl/You’re a canvas that’s blank/You’re a Duchamp urinal/You’re half a dead cow in tank”). It’s a different world from the open-hearted ballads and poignant torch songs (“If I Met Myself Again” and “He’s My Boy”) that are delivered here with such devastating immediacy by Josie Walker. She is excellent in the part of his dedicated mother who, in her desire to prevent Jamie suffering pain, entangles him in well-meaning lies about his absentee father that end up distressing him deeply.

It would, no doubt, be better as drama if Jamie had stiffer opposition to overcome and if his father were a stronger presence than he is in this piece. But Jonathan Butterell, who was first to see the musical potential in the documentary, directs a beautifully cast production that brings out all the affectionate comedy and fellow-feeling in the show’s approach to the support network. Phil Nichol is lovely as Jamie’s mentor Hugo, a drag dress supplier who comes out of retirement as “Loco Chanelle” to give him the prod and the padding he lacks. Mina Anwar is hilarious as Ray, the staunch “auntie” from next door who showers Jamie with the dodgy bargains and novelties she can’t resist. This lippy, she proudly tells him, is “the one Paris Hilton wears when she shops at Aldi”.

Lucie Shorthouse is in fantastic voice as his BFF, Pritti Pasha, the diligent Muslim girl who wants to be a doctor and whose choice to wear the hijab despite the mockery it arouses has its correspondence with Jamie’s gestures of sartorial defiance. Thanks to Pritti’s shrewd quiet influence, the genre of self-realisation through drag is given a touching twist. Pritti approves in principle but asks why he assume the prom is about him? Why can’t he go as himself – a beautiful boy in dress rather than hijack the event barricaded in a bullet-proof persona? One of the loveliest of songs of the evening, “It Means Beautiful”, hymns the simple and the pure: “It means something that’s always yours to keep/It’s the face you don’t take off to go to sleep”. I shan’t spoil how this resolved, but it’s wonderfully funny and moving.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie won a string of awards for its first airing in Sheffield; I reckon it might pick up a few more during this jubilant London run.

‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is at the Apollo Theatre to 21 April

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