His psychometric test might say he’s destined for life behind the wheel of a forklift truck but Jamie New harbours a secret wish – to be a drag queen.
Welcome to the hottest ticket in town, as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opens to a packed house at Salford’s Lowry, the first stop of the UK tour and ahead of the highly anticipated movie adaptation.
Based on the real-life story of Jamie Campbell, from Jenny Popplewell’s 2011 documentary ‘Jamie: Drag Queen at 16’, it’s a tried and tested ‘coming of age’ tale that we’ve seen in many other guises – Billy Elliot; Our House; Hairspray to name a few.
Here we swap ballet shoes for sequins as we follow 16year old Jamie who lives with his single mum, living hand to mouth and attempting to beat the odds despite jeers and bullying from classmates.
Gifted with an effervescent, uplifting score by The Feeling’s frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, Tom McRae’s sublimely funny script, and Kate Prince’s spectacular choreography, Jamie’s journey from humble roots to high heels and glitter bathes the audience in pure and joyful warmth thanks in large parts to a sassy, well-rounded and hugely energetic star turn from Layton Williams as Jamie.
Williams sashays his way through school and home life with all the melodramatic flair and bravado the role demands. He’s ably supported by the charismatic Shane Richie, who makes the most of his experience as both actor and entertainer, as Jamie’s mentor Hugo, aka Loco Chanelle who Jamie promptly declares to his mum Margaret to be ‘like, OMG, the world’s most famous drag queen’ with perfect teen hyperbole.
Besides his drag queen dream, Jamie has settled on the simple ambition of wearing a dress to prom. His pessimistic teacher, Miss Hedge (Lara Denning) has other ideas.
Aided by his mum, his neighbour Ray, his best friend Pritti, Hugo and the drag queens of Legs 11, a battle of wills commences as Jamie explores his identity and ideas of what it is to be a man. A man who ‘occasionally wants to be a girl’.
The show’s strength comes from the note-perfect casting of the other principal and ensemble cast. Layton and Richie are deftly supported by a fantastically bolshy Shobna Gulati as Ray.
Sharan Phull as Pritti – who suffers her own taunting for her religion and reluctance to indulge in the usual teen pursuits- brings lovely moments of clarity and stillness to Jamie’s frenetic world, particularly in her Act two solo, “Beautiful”. George Sampson is excellent as school bully Dean.
But it is Amy Ellen Richardson as the long-suffering Margaret who stands out, and then some. Her dedication to her son and the sacrifices she makes along the way are beautifully and authentically realized and her rendition of ‘He’s my boy’ almost blows the roof off the Lowry, greeted with thunderous applause.
The set is another highlight. Anna Fleischle’s simple and clever design has an almost dystopian feel that invokes the industrial backdrop of Sheffield. It also forms the perfect canvas for the superb projections created by Luke Halls that bring Wizard of Oz technicolour to Jamie’s ‘grey and dull Kansas’.
Despite its timeless script (brought right up to date with references to Covid-19 and social distancing), with debate around gender identity and sexual orientation still raging, the abuse and discrimination Jamie encounters doesn’t seem to pack the punch that one might expect. The biggest gasps of the night comes not from a violent, homophobic attack, but Jamie’s lashing out at his mum when a few home truths are revealed and Dean’s verbal bullying of Pritti for her faith. Maybe it’s difficult to achieve true nuance, but it feels almost glossed over.
Overall, though, you can’t help but wholeheartedly root for Jamie and, despite his success feeling like a foregone conclusion, it’s no surprise that the audience leaps to its feet with hollering praise at the curtain call. The show title is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it will be for all the right reasons.
Everybody’s Talking about Jamie plays at the Lowry till 12th September. For tickets and full UK tour information, visit https://www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/2020-uk-tour/
Reviewer: Lou Steggals
Reviewed: 4th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★
Photographs: Matt Crockett