Curve, Leicester — until 25th Sep then touring.
This past weekend saw the return of the much-loved West End Live in Trafalgar Square. A free festival for theatre lovers, the event has increased in popularity each year (I still remember the early years when everyone was crammed into Leicester Square and only a handful of shows took part!), and eventually it will outgrow its current home too (where next? Hyde Park?). It’s a true highlight of the theatrical calendar and I have many fond memories of attending every year as a birthday treat with my mum and sister.
And it was on such a day several years ago that we, alongside thousands of fellow musical fans, were treated to Dan Gillespie Sells’ acoustic preview of a couple of tracks from his new musical project: an adaptation of a little-known documentary about an aspiring teenage drag queen from Sheffield. Little did I know on that scorching afternoon in June that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie(co-written with Tom McCrae and original Director, Jonathan Butterell) would be the biggest new British musical in a decade, playing over 1000 performances in the West End, spawning a film adaptation (which was released on Amazon Prime last Friday), and now heading off on it’s first (belated) UK tour.
The story is simple but effective. Sixteen year old Jamie New longs to be a drag queen, an ambition he keeps secret from his classmates and his waspish teacher, who continually tells him to ‘keep it real’ while recommending that he pursue a ‘normal’ career such as becoming a fork-lift driver or prison guard. With the help of his selfless mum, studious best friend and a local veteran drag queen, Jamie fulfils his dreams, though not without hitting a few snags along the way.
While the musical’s themes of acceptance and embracing individuality are universal, it’s a quintessentially British show. Jamie’s glamourous fantasies are juxtaposed with the kitchen-sink reality of life in a working-class community, and the relationship between Jamie and Margaret is touching and grounded representation of single-parent families. McCrae’s amusing yet low-key plot, coupled with Butterell’s simple direction, is one of the show’s selling points, as the emphasis is placed on small, everyday situations, based in a relatable environment. Jamie isn’t aiming for fame and fortune, he isn’t campaigning on a global scale, his goal and driving passion is his determination to wear a dress to his school prom. The scale is small, but the stakes are high and highly personal, making the final triumph that much sweeter. Hopefully every young person watching that has ever felt different, or had to hide their true self can identify with Jamie and find inspiration from his story.
Gillespie Sells’ music is catchy without being cloying, offering a mix of poppy bangers such as the title song, ‘Work of Art’, and ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, interspersed with sweetly contemplative numbers like ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘It Means Beautiful’. Margaret’s Act 2 showstopper ‘My Boy’ is a tear-jerking and heart-warming ode to a mother’s unconditional love for her child, delivered with powerful emotion by Amy Ellen Richardson. The domestic setting occasionally gives way to glorious flights of theatrical fancy, courtesy of the drag performers at the local Legs Eleven club. A particular highlight is camp noir pastiche number ‘The Legend of Loco Chanel’, as Shane Richie’s Hugo has a blast recounting his alter-ego’s misadventures of old. Curve veteran Sharan Phull also excels in the role of Pritti, Jamie’s kind and fiercely loyal best friend, while Shobna Gulati offers great comedic support as family friend, Ray. Layton Williams returns after leading the show in the West End, and his Jamie is wonderfully endearing, charismatic and sympathetic. Williams has excellent comic timing and in his sheer effervescence he emanates that elusive quality that producers world-over clamour for: Star Power.
Neither cynical nor saccharine, Gillespie Sells, McCrae and Butterell’s show is currently the jewel in the UK Musical Theatre crown. I have no doubt that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will continue to delight audiences for years to come, and has hopefully paved the way for more home-grown musicals that celebrate the unapologetic joy of individualism within British culture.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie plays at Curve until 25th September and continues to tour the UK. For full tour details please visit: https://www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/2020-uk-tour/
The cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Credit: Matt Crockett