The performing arts often attracts outsiders looking for a safe haven, so it is hardly surprising many musicals are about the plucky outsider finding their true selves against what seem like insurmountable odds.
That’s true of this big-hearted musical that started life just down the road in Sheffield, before becoming a West End hit, and is loosely based on the real story of working class gay teenager Jamie Campbell who decided that only did he want to be a drag artist when he left school, but he was going to his prom in a dress.
Here our Jamie New, supported by Muslim best mate Pritti, wants to do the same despite the school bullies, but is up against a bigoted teacher determined he will turn up to the big night in ’normal’ attire, provoking an unexpected response from his schoolmates.
Tom MacRae’s witty and intelligent book avoids preaching instead sensitively exploring Jamie’s confusion as he tries to find his identity, and peel back the often hidden world of drag artists who are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream. Occasionally it is a touch clunky, especially offering Jamie’s errant dad as a cardboard cut-out bigot, but his touch is otherwise sure throughout as he takes on some big issues around acceptance and identity which are very much of the moment.
Some artists are born to play a role, and that is certainly of Layton Williams gleefully channelling his own similar experiences to the real Jamie and really drills down into that unique mix of vulnerability and cast iron confidence that makes a great drag artist. He utterly inhabits this tricky, often self-centred, character from camp one liners to heart breaking insecurity thanks to his macho dad, plus he sings beautifully on big numbers like the opening The Wall In My Head, and the touching Ugly In This Ugly World as he finally finds his tribe through his drag alter ego.
Dan Gillespie Sells is best known as the singer in The Feeling, but he certainly has a future in musical theatre as his rock/pop score is full of big hooks, and MacRae doubles up as lyricist ensuring music and book marry up.
The real revelation is EastEnders legend Shane Richie as Jamie’s world-weary drag mentor Hugo as he not only maintains a Yorkshire accent, but dances around in killer six inch heels. Richie is a strong singer with decent musical theatre form, but his transformation into his drag alter ego Loco Chanelle is simply sensational – no doubt fooling lots of people that it is another drag performer stepping into the role.
The real life Jamie was supported all the way by his single mum. and here Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret does the same essaying that dread and fear all parents have as their kids try to find themselves, especially the ones fighting bullies and prejudice. Her raw reading of He’s My Boy was a genuine showstopper.
The ever-reliable Shobna Gulati brings all her experience on the Weatherfield cobbles scoring all the big laughs as Margaret’s best mate Ray who takes no nonsense from anyone, especially a bigoted teacher.
A star in the making is Sharan Phull as Pritti, strong in her faith and her belief in her best mate, but still struggling with her own sense of identity. This was an emotionally intelligent performance of great promise, topped off with another showstopping turn on It Means Beautiful.
The diverse gang of young performers playing Jamie’s boisterous schoolmates on the verge of adulthood are uniformly good, and their agents can be assured they will be getting bookings after this tour. They romp round Olivier Award winner Anna Fleischle’s clever set that acts as a bleak Sheffield schoolroom, Jamie’s kitchen and a seedy drag club.
The real Jamie was in the audience, and he must have been pleased that a thousand people went home thinking about what acceptance and inclusivity means in a modern Britain that is so much more than just a bunch of small-minded little Englanders and anti-vaxxers.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at Leeds Grand until Sunday 7th November and then touring. To book 0113 243 0808 or visit https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/everybodys-talking-about-jamie/
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 2nd November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★