Apollo Theatre, London
After Hamilton, this may be the most-anticipated arrival in the West End, certainly if you believe the advance publicity. Lauded in Sheffield with five-star reviews, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells of Jamie New, a quick-witted pre-GSCE teen in a roughcast Yorkshire comprehensive where ‘school’ is a two-syllable word.
We are on the sort of council estate peopled by mothers like Shannon Matthews’ and portrayed by people like Sheridan Smith. Although a harsh backround against which to grow up and come out gay at 16, Jamie’s all-consuming ambition is not to drive a forklift truck but to be the RuPaul of South Yorkshire on a drag catwalk.
His passage is softened, so to speak, by a supportive entourage including an understanding mother, un-bullying classmates (apart from one easily taken down with a smart remark), and a bunch of multicultural neighbours positively eager to roll out the red carpet and the rainbow flag.
Like Kinky Boots, it’s based loosely on a true story – a 2011 BBC documentary – filmed on Tyneside which producers possibly felt was too Billy Elliott and relocated to Sheffield, where the show had a three-week sellout run last February at the Crucible Theatre.
Jamie arrives decorated with an album of tunes by ‘The Feeling’ frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, which are catchy but don’t come home with you, and quite a batch of token characters from the bookish Muslim girl who wants to be a doctor, the doting mother and distant dad, to a clutch bag of generously supportive but crudely-written drag queens.
Kate Prince’s fresh sharp choreography is great – the actors playing the teens are very fine, but top of the class are John McCrea as a spectacularly well-sung and well-observed Jamie, and Josie Walker as his mum with the only really heartfelt song in the show, ‘He’s My Boy’ with which she brings the house down. She also appears to have left his father to become a lesbian, with a wisecracking ‘friend’ called Ray played by TV comedy actress Mina Anwar, although this isn’t really referenced by the script.
As well as Kinky Boots, it borrows from Blood Brothers and even Bend It Like Beckham but never to the point of losing its own identity and it’s a shot in the arm to see a new, British stage musical not directly derived from a movie or a back catalogue.
Whether Jamie will be doing quite as well after the school holidays is anyone’s guess, but for now it’s a feelgood show to charm and delight over Christmas.
And McCrea is a new star.