I have never seen a spontaneous, unanimous, prolonged standing ovation quite like that for the penultimate performance of Everybody’s Talking about Jamie at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield on Saturday. The story of sixteen-year old Sheffield boy Jamie New, who pursues his dream to be a drag queen, does what the great musicals do: reads the signs of the times and touches hearts.
Jamie is inspired by a documentary about a teenager from County Durham who had the uniqueness, nerve and talent to become a drag queen. Director Jonathan Butterell, composer Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling and lyricist Tom MacRae wisely shifted the accent to South Yorkshire thus making inevitable comparisons with Billy Elliot less obvious.
What I loved from the get-go was that we’ve moved on from the tortured growing-up gay storyline. John McRea’s Jamie is a camp, happy, peroxided baby gay who has a burning desire to wear wigs and hot pants. He has the unconditional love of mother Margaret (Josie Walker) and her raucous best mate Lee (Mina Anwar) who buy him his first pair of red patent leather stilettos.
Setting Jamie in Sheffield is inspired because the accent gives the gags punch. John McRea is electrifying from the first number but the audience could have power the national grid when he said in a broad Yorkshire accent ‘sometimes you’ve got to grab life by the balls, tuck ‘em behind you and put your best fookin’ frock on’. The cheer for that zinger was like the Superbowl.
I happen to think the Crucible is one of Britain’s best auditoria for musicals and drama. Anna Fleischle’s sets placed the orchestra above the action and with great economy described Jamie’s world. You’ll hear echoes of Kinky Boots, Mathilda, La Cage Aux Folles and Spring Awakening in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie but the musical is none the worse for that.
Jamie is as much about family as drag although there’s a lovely acknowledgement to ‘Our Lady RuPaul’ who has done more than most to create an international family of drag queens. The relationships between Jamie, Margaret and Lee underpins the idea of modern families realigning as does the friendship between Jamie and Muslim classmate Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse).
I was most touched by Charles Dale’s Hugo – the artist formerly known as Loco Chanel – who runs the drag boutique that Jamie goes to for his first frock. The frock happens to be a dead ringer for Marilyn’s opener in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The old world meeting the future of drag was beautifully described.
Hugo has some fabulous lines not least encouraging Jamie to go on as the opening act at the local gay club ‘for all your fallen comrades’. Far from being a filler, I think his ballad of Loco Chanel was an apposite reminder of the time when drag queens had to be the fiercest of divas because they were a triple threat to masculinity.
When we were taken backstage at the gay club and the three drag queens were introduce by Loco, I fully expected a Gotta Getta Gimmick number like Sondheim’s Gypsy teaching Jamie the ropes. I’m sorry as I am sure were the actors that we didn’t get one. Still, Jamie’s drag name (MeMe Me) was inspired considering the supreme self-confidence of teenagers today.
It was terribly clever never to show Jamie in full drag. We cut away to the end of act one before he is about to make his stage debut and in the second half we never see Jamie in full wig and make-up. It made the ‘reveal’ at the school prom all the more touching.
Jamie has been criticised for giving the title character a relatively easy rite-of-passage story but for a thick school bully, a disapproving teacher and a father who disowns him. I would’t call that a stroll in the park, would you? True, the interaction with his father could have given Jamie a more powerful and poignant storyline. But then again, Jamie’s resilience was as strong a message as the musical has to teach.
There was rather more audience participation than one would expect at a musical and genuine appreciation when Gillespie Sells knocks it out of the park with ballads such as He’s My Boy sung by Margaret with more key changes than a Queen anthem. For the encore not one of the audience sat on their hands and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. It was a unanimous clap and shimmy.
Though it is curious that the big ballads are given to Margaret and Pritti, the show belongs entirely to John McRea who absolutely nails the combination of knowing sarcasm and breathtaking innocence that is Jamie. He can deliver a zinger like Bianca del Rio and his dancing in six inch heels would make Beyonce look like she’d got two left feet and no rhythm.
I will toss in my wig and throw my falsies into the tit box (to quote Loco Chanel) if Everybody’s Talking About Jamie does not transfer to the West End and possibly Broadway. Unlike most modern musicals, the book, lyrics and numbers hold-up individually as well as telling the story.
In short, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has filth, sass, musicality, heart and more talent than I’ve seen in the West End in a long time. I couldn’t have liked it more. Until next time…