Here's a new and distinctively British musical that could give the imminent arrival of Hamilton from Broadway a serious run for its money, and is just the refreshing breath of fresh, inclusive air the West End needs right now.
Sure, there is also currently Kinky Boots, also from Broadway but set in Northampton, that revolves around how a down-at-heel shoe factory (pun intended) is saved when it turns to manufacturing boots for drag queens. But Everybody's Talking About Jamie does something even bolder and more thrilling: it's about a gay teenager who finds a path to self-acceptance and self-realisation through his love of drag, and charts how his brave determination to go to his high school prom in a dress is realised.
Based on the true life story of a 16-year old schoolboy who was the subject of the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, but fictionalised here to be relocated from County Durham to Sheffield, it wears its heart on its sleeve as beautifully and authentically as Jamie wears a dress: it's a natural fit.
We first meet Jamie in the classroom of his comprehensive school, where he and his fellow pupils are being given a careers advice lesson. The teacher suggests he could become a fork-lift truck driver - but he's envisioning a different future entirely. Like so many youngsters, he wants to be an entertainer; but not just any entertainer. He already knows he's gay - and he wants to be a drag queen.
What's wonderful and remarkable about the show is how it doesn't stint on showing the obstacles that he faces along the way - from a school bully, an obstructing teacher and his rejecting father - but also the unstinting support he finds in his best friend, mother and a local drag community (led by the owner of a shop specialising in serving it). Here's a musical where the book, by Tom MacRae, is every bit as finely tuned as the exhilarating and soulful songs composed by Dan Gillespie Sells, lead singer and principal songwriter for The Feeling, who makes his musical theatre composing debut here.
The show is frequently profoundly moving - I watched it through a veil of tears - but also outright hilarious. At the heart of it all is a blazingly honest, star-making performance from John McCrea, who perfectly captures the combination of strength and vulnerability at his character's core. He struts, shimmies and sings with stylish glee. Also more quietly wounded and wonderful is Josie Walker as Jamie's mum Margaret, whose big Act Two song “He's My Boy” is a stunner and an instant musical theatre classic.
But there isn't a weak link anywhere. Also glorious are Lucie Shorthouse as Jamie's best friend Pritti Pasha (who has her own achingly lovely song "It Means Beautiful", which she sings beautifully), Mina Anwar as Margaret's best friend Ray, Phil Nichol as Jamie's drag mentor Hugo, Tamsin Carroll as teacher Miss Hedge, and Luke Baker as school bully Dean Paxton. It is also thrillingly choreographed by Kate Prince that incorporates street dance and high glamour.
All credit to director Jonathan Butterell, whose idea it was to turn this story into a musical in the first place, for steering it so expertly to the stage with such a solid grasp of form and structure, and to producer Nica Burns for bringing it from Sheffield where it premiered earlier this year to the West End.
This should run and run. Could we be sending it to Broadway next?
Everybody's Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre until 21st April.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"It’s a joyous punch in the air about following your dreams and being yourself. ‘Life-affirming’ is generally an over-used term, but not here. This production owns the stage." - Tom Wicker, Time Out (five stars)
"A songwriter with an easy sincerity, [Dan Gillespie Sells] combines poppy verve and a craving for the bittersweet. The book and lyrics are the work of TV writer Tom MacRae, and what they lack in blazingly original storytelling they more than make up for with warmth and wit. The result is a true crowd-pleaser — big-hearted and joyous." - Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)
"This fizzing musical is a blast of fresh air, and what a joy to see a stageful of youngsters who look like swathes of modern Britain: young, poor, sassy, not to mention black, brown, white and, er, sparkly." - Ann Treneman, The Times (five stars)
"Everybody’s Talking About Jamie won a string of awards for its first airing in Sheffield; I reckon it might pick up a few more during this jubilant London run." - Paul Taylor, The Independent (five stars)