Apollo Theatre, London
A GLORIOUS, GANGLING, GRACEFUL PRESENT FROM SHEFFIELD… This is glorious. Hits the bullseye. It’s about kids – the boiling mass of hormones that is a year 11 class grappling with GCSEs and half-formed hope. It’s about a mother and son, anger and kindness and making the best of a bad-dad deal. It’s about our loosening, gentling new attitudes to quirky individuality, gay normality and gender images (not gender itself – our Jamie has no wish to be a girl). It’s about defying inhibitions and sticking by your mates.
It bears witness also to the upswelling energy from far beyond London. After a TV documentary showed Jamie Campbell, the Co. Durham boy who fought to wear a dress to his school prom. Daniel Evans, the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, commissioned director Jonathan Butterell, with writers Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae, to make it a musical. It ran a humble 19 performances there, but Nica Burns of Nimax checked it out, encouraged new touches and songs, and brings it up West with a sharp new set by Anna Fleischle, to do battle with the greats. Its star John McCrea is not yet a “name”, most of the young cast are on a West End debut. And they rock it: confident, hilarious and heartfelt. And though it is fictionalized, the real Jamie and his Mum recognize its truthfulness.
McCrae’s Jamie – a ganglingly graceful streak of a boy – is seen first lounging and cheeking with the rest in a careers class (“Forklift driver” it offers). He has a camp puppyish exhibitionist streak, leading a larky chorus, already ‘out’ at school and defying the macho meathead Dean (Luke Baker). His best friend is Pritti, an earnest Muslim girl who plans to be a doctor and applauds his nerve “You’re fearless! You’re Emmeline Pankhurst!”.
Nicely, there is another hijab-wearing girl in the class who is more airhead: nice for Muslim girls to know they don’t all HAVE to be swots, doctors, or Tory ministers. At home, Jamie has an amused, weary single Mum (Josie Walker), dumped by his Dad after a shotgun marriage. She pretends that his Dad cares and sends him presents, while in fact, he is a disgusted homophobe who wanted a “real boy”.
Jamie’s pain about this, beneath the camp bravado, is perfectly caught in body language, moments of hunched teenage misery and self-doubt. When he goes to “Victor’s Secret” for a prom dress he finds a better male mentor in Phil Nichol’s Hugo, a gruff bluff figure whose own alter ego down the clubs is Loco Chanelle. He learns about the defiance of the genre: “a drag queen is feared!”. The point is sharply made that even in the age of Grayson Perry you need courage to diverge from the norm: it is only at home that a boy can safely strut his high heels around the kitchen in sequinned hotpants and school tie, saying “Muuum! do you know nothing about divergent gender identities?”.
Josie Walker is tremendous as Mum, and her friend Ray (Nina Anwar) a stalwart support: when Jamie says “I don’t think I have a Dad anymore” she barks “You’ve got me!” There are sharp confrontations in class, especially when the demure earnest Pritti rounds on Dean. After a brief, dangerous silence Dean’s best mate just shakes his head sadly with “She nailed you..”. Some people cheered.
But a musical stands or falls on the big numbers. Dan Gillespie (of the chart-topping The Feeling) channels both disco energy and lyrical grace; Tom Macrae’s lyrics never jangle but provide neatly casual delights (“John was an agent, but not a gent – took more than his ten-percent!”). The drag-club ‘girls’ have a sharp “Over the Top” number and some pleasingly crude banter, and Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti delivers a really lovely, earnest ballad of identity and suppressed love, “It means Beautiful”. As for Mum, Josie Walker had us on our feet cheering after the immense “He’s my Boy”.
They’re musical novice creators, but it is finely built: every song pushes the story and the feeling forward, every joke hits. The moral is subtler than mere gay-lib or modish gender-fluidity, as Jamie’s hard-won confidence spills out to help all the others. Even, in a very touching coda, Dean. And in this age of suspicious social division, there is something cheering about one Muslim girl – Pritti – gently saying she likes her hijab because “It keeps me simple, frames who I am”, while the other plans a prom dress with a squeak of “Allah doesn’t mind a bit of sparkle, as long as you cover up”. Joyful: heart and skill, restraint and jokes, joy and gentleness.
Box office 0330 333 4809 – to April