Everybody will soon be talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, an irrepressibly delightful new musical premiering in Sheffield. It’s an absolute triumph in every respect. A toe-tapping pop-tune score is fresh and vital and provides a perfect tapestry for an honest, raw, and contemporary tale about identity, ambition, peer pressure and love. Marvellous writing, funny and sharp, is brought to complex, engaging life by a smooth production that crackles with skill in every department, with faultless performances across the board and star turns from John McCrae and Josie Walker. An unmissable new British musical that will make your heart burst with joy.
Oh Baby I’m the shit. Yeah I’m the shit. Yeah I’m a hit. Just a bit and I’m smoking hot. Cos I got the lot. And what I got. You have not.
And you don’t even know it!
Very few musicals can claim to be genuinely funny, reflective of contemporary multi-cultural pre-Brexit Britain, achingly honest about the scars children bear from the words and acts of their parents, or the kind of show that makes people want to dance. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is all of those things at once, and much more. It’s a slice of life set to music; gloriously accessible, thoroughly entertaining music at that.
The score is the work of Dan Gillespie Sells (lead vocalist with The Feeling) and Tom MacRae (creator of Threesome). Sells’ tunes are infectious and giddy, and they are the sort of tunes that could easily dominate the charts. You have no difficulty imagining Barbra Streisand recording a version of It Means Beautiful, Lady Gaga making Work of Art a hit, or Adele belting out He’s My Boy. The music is instantly enjoyable and the kind of music you just want to listen to over and over again.
It’s not just the tunes themselves, MacRae’s lyrics are crisp and rewarding too. But the real skill here is the fusion of the talents – MacRae’s lyrics bring out the depths and textures of Sells’ score; Sells’ score makes MacRae’s lyrics really fly. When you hear Josie Walker sing lines like “The cold empty mornings, the coffee cup warnings…my precious surprise, my perfect mistake” they have a directness, a power, a searing truth which exists because of the special synergy between the particular words and the particular music.
This is not a regular occurrence in modern musical theatre, except in Sondheim, Pasek and Paul, and some Stiles and Drew material. Mostly lyrics are subordinate to the music, although sometimes they have a separate power of their own. You might think about the clever rhymes in Hamilton, but the tunes don’t come instantly to mind always. With Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the tunes are inseparable from the lyrics. It’s a quality of great strength.
Another is the ability of the songs to reflect, dazzlingly, the characters who sing them. The central character, Jamie, has songs of exuberant extravagance as well as a remarkably painful ballad reflecting on a secret he has held inside him since he was eight, when his father did something which pierced his heart. His mother, Margaret, sings two big numbers which exactly reflect her state of mind about her son at different points. Their duet, My Man, Your Boy represents that cathartic moment when parent and child acknowledge each other’s role in their life.
Jamie’s best friend, Pritti, sings up a storm when she makes Jamie face his fear. His school-mates sing and dance in a hormone fuelled what-will-my-life-be-like frenzy, the rhythms and beats of numbers like And You Don’t Even Know It, Work of Art, The Prom Song and the title number reflecting their all-energy headlong rush to experience life, to do what grown ups don’t want them to do, to be cool and now.
Director Jonathan Butterell had the idea for the musical after seeing Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, a BBC3 documentary first screened in 2011. Based on that real life story, the book has been written by MacRae who brings stylish and whimsical simplicity to the task. Events move speedily, but not too fast, and there is exactly the right amount of time spent on character and situation to make everything that happens realistic, impactful and empathetic.
Jamie is about to finish school. His career analysis suggests a life as a fork-lift operator but Jamie has dreams of cross-dressing his way to fabulousity. His parents have divorced; he rarely sees his father who now lives with another woman. His mother struggles to make ends meet but ensures Jamie has a home and even a pair of red high heels as a birthday treat.
Jamie is popular at school where the big topic of conversation is not about final exams but the forthcoming prom. The students are obsessed about selfies, dresses, sex, partying, each other – the usual concerns of young adulthood. School Casanova, Dean, bullies Jamie, hiding his own fears. None of this perturbs Jamie or dissuades him from pursuing his dream of being a professional drag queen.
While fab frock hunting, Jamie encounters Hugo, who once had a career as Loco Chanel. Hugo sees something of his former pluckiness in Jamie and decides to take him under his sequinned wing, booking him a spot as a drag performer in a local venue. With his mother and her best friend supporting him, and a trio of drag stars offering tips, Jamie takes the chance to step into the spotlight.
Word gets out at his school and Jamie’s classmates are also there to watch what happens. Jamie’s daring behaviour electrifies them and all they can do is talk about and relive their experiences. When Jamie decides he wants to attend the prom in a dress, tensions rise. Parents complain. Teachers fret and Jamie must decide whether to be himself, as he wants to be seen, or be the person others want him to be, the conforming Jamie.
In Les Miserables, Valjean sings Who Am I? when he has to decide whether to remain silent and keep his secure life or speak up for the truth. In a way, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie is about one young man asking himself the Who Am I question, the most important question anyone can ask. The work is not about coming out or being gay, it’s not about the life of a drag queen, it’s not about teenage angst or peer pressure – although all of those things are touched on. Its a musical about following your dreams, being the best version of yourself you can be.
That central premise is simple and vital, and it extends beyond Jamie’s particular story: is modern British society tolerant and brave enough to allow everybody to contribute individuality to the broad spectrum of normality? Judging by the instantaneous standing ovation and the enthusiastic applause throughout the answer is a resounding Yes.
MacRae’s lucid handling of the narrative, peppered with insightful touches, succinct expressions of character, and the odd hilariously filthy joke, is never preachy, never laboured and never trite. And always captivating. The focus is always squarely on Jamie and his mother, with all the other characters subordinate to that. They shine in their own moments, but they never distract, their own moments being lights along the path Jamie treads.
Importantly, none of the characters are perfect. Flaws, foibles, fears, insecurities and uncertainties are all deftly, incisively exposed in dialogue exchanges which zing and don’t flag.
Despite his particular desires re career, Jamie is depicted as a normal teenager aflush with normal teenage angst. The difficult life of his mother, Margaret, is economically conveyed as is the strength of her friendship with Lee, and the bond between Jamie and his bestie, Pritti. The darkness of Jamie’s real father, the hopefulness offered by Hugo, who becomes Jamie’s drag Godfather, the “reality” checks from Miss Hedge – all are adroitly conveyed with minimum fuss and verbiage. It’s quite masterful writing.
Butterell’s production is as engaging and compelling as the source material. Anna Fleischle provides a clever set which houses Tom Brady’s splendid orchestra and the various scenes where the action plays out. Scenes flit from schoolroom, to Margaret’s kitchen, to Pritti’s bedroom, to the backstage dressing room for the drag performers; the transitions are seamless, the use of space imaginative and cosy – the spaces all feel real, known.
Joshua Carr’s lighting is terrific and, as the lyric suggests, finds the glitter in the grey: each scene has the right ambience, warm, cool or cold as the occasion demands. Paul Groothuis strikes a perfect balance between Brady’s band and the vocalists, so all of MacRae’s lyrics can be easily discerned on first listening. All of these elements give Butterell a strong platform on which to do dynamic things, an opportunity he seizes with relish.
Key to the enlivening of the musicality of the piece, is Katie Prince’s exceptional choreography. She captures the modern youthful spirit perfectly in the ensemble numbers where the school kids dance, fluid, muscular and angular moves giving a music video sensibility (totally appropriate) which really works. Getting Miss Henge to join in is inspired and hilarious, reminding us that we were all adolescents approaching graduation once.
Prince’s staging of The Legend of Loco Chanel is evocative – the sort of hazy, film noir effect that strikes as fitting for faded memories. The final image in Act One is a stunning visual finish to a waltz of anticipation that has been assiduously plotted, as Jamie prepares to make his debut as a drag artiste. The title song, which opens Act Two, is almost volcanic in its energetic depiction of teenage gossip. The finale is exhilarating, astonishing.
Outstanding material, outstanding production concepts and values – many modern musicals have these elements but nevertheless fall at the important hurdle: casting. Producers too often think “stars” are necessary, rather than people equipped and trained to deliver the best version of a show. Happily, the producers here, originally Daniel Evans and, latterly, Robert Hastie, have sensibly opted for talent over “stars”, with the result that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie boasts the best original cast in a musical, across the board, in many a year.
Of course, given the quality of their performances, this cast is full of actual stars.
John McCrea is entirely winning in the central role. His portrayal of flamboyance is natural, not forced, and his overwhelming commitment to honesty in every moment pays real dividends. This is especially true in his final confrontation with Luke Baker’s genitals-obsessed Dean, a moment McCrea imbues with positivity and passion.
In some ways, it is in the darker or more difficult moments that McCrea really shines: his introspective solo, The Wall In My Head, is devastating; the confrontation with his father, a splendidly, unflinchingly unsentimental Spencer Stafford; the moment of self-realisation brought on by Pritti’s marvellous pep-talk, It Means Beautiful; and then the glorious, inspirational but truly raw, eleven o’clock number, My Man, Your Boy, the duet with Josie Walker’s exquisite Margaret.
This is not to diminish McCrae’s performance in the lighter moments. He is terrific in every way, from his first walk in high heels to his eyelash-flashing rulebook-reading when the Prom crunch comes. A terrifically silly bit of physical comedy in a toilet works splendidly and he perfectly communicates the awkward sense of desperate glee involved in preparing for his first performance as a drag diva. He sings beautifully too, using his falsetto to emphasise his character’s naivety, and rocking when he can, popping when he can. His wholehearted embodiment of the music is superb and contagious.
Walker is flawless as Margaret, the plain, hard working, totally grounded mother to Jamie. She suffuses Margaret with a bitter ordinariness that is wholly understandable and, at the same time, she tempers that with true grace, maternal insistence and unshakeable loyalty. Positivity underpins almost every move Walker makes.
She and Mina Anwar, who plays Lee, establish a strong friendship easily. They are disparate souls but bonded through hardship and experience. Anwar brings a bouncy, salty brio to her role, which helps Walker immensely. The family unit of Jamie, Lee and Margaret seems real and utterly believable.
Walker really glows in her two incredibly impressive solos. She sings magnificently, from the heart, pain and joy permeating every poignant line. In If I Met Myself Again, Walker articulates the feeling every parent has at some point – what if I hadn’t had the child? Her phrasing is immaculate, every breath laden with meaning, her voice burnished with experience. Then, in He’s My Boy she brings the house down, every key change a winner, as she belts out an anthem about the pains and joys of motherhood.
Tamsin Carroll shines as the power dressing Miss Hedge, a teacher who puts conformity first and wants a quiet life and a quieter classroom. She symbolises thwarted ambition. Carroll makes her full of life, and her “get down with the kids” dancing is terrific, as are her spot on vocals. Charles Dale makes Hugo Battersby delightfully faded, another example of ambition thwarted. Appropriately non-glamorous, even as Loco, Dale provides a beautiful portrait of an ordinary older guy offering genuine friendship to a slightly desperate youngster.
The trio of jaded, faded drag artists is terrific. James Gillan, a superb performer, makes every twitch of Tray Sophisticay radiate meaning. At times he seemed to actually be Julianne Moore. Raj Ghatak’s vivacious show off, Sandra Bollock, is funny and bawdy and, as Laika Virgin, Stafford is completely unrecognisable, no trace of Jamie’s Dad about her. The three work together effortlessly, taking strength from each other and enjoying the put-downs and shade throwing that is an integral part of their schtick.
Baker makes the surly, dopey Dean likeable despite his anti-social behaviour; quite an achievement. You see clearly that Baker’s Dean is the way he is because he thinks that is how he should be. He has been carefully taught by parents we never see. But his final scenes reveal that he understands the tragedy his life will be if he doesn’t make a change.
Lucie Shorthouse is beautiful and engaging as the studious Pritti, unwavering in her support for Jamie. When she asks, tentatively, hopefully, whether she is his “fag-hag” it is difficult and charming and funny – another performance of raw honesty. Anwar’s Lee is a terrific support for Jamie in a different way, and Anwar herself is arrestingly alive in the role, with a glorious voice to match.
Jamie’s schoolmates are all intriguing individuals, well played and thought through. Their singing is of a very high standard. Barney Hudson’s Mickey stands out because of his singular dancing prowess, but there are terrific performances from Daniel Anthony (Levi), Kush Khanna (Sayid), Harriet Payne (Bex), Shiv Rabheru (Cy), Kristie Skivington (Vicki) and Courtney Bowman (Fatima). The diversity of these characters is inspiring as is their ability to get along and deal with each other evenly, openly, frankly. They all add real energy and joy to every scene. The moment of true solidarity, when it comes, is electrifying.
Butterell deserves real kudos for assembling this cast and using their skills wisely. The production takes you with it for the entirety of its ride; there are no dull patches or “necessary bits”. Butterell’s gentle soufflé rises and rises and rises – every part a richly tasty experience. If, at the end, you don’t love Jamie and Margaret and the people who surround them – even dopey Dean – the problem lies not with the material or the performances.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie treads similar ground to Kinky Boots but it out-classes that show in every way. Although Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is unconvincing as the best title, the truth is that the piece is every bit as exciting and original as Matilda was when it first burst forth in Stratford Upon Avon.
This is exactly the kind of diverse, new-audience attracting work that should be playing at the National Theatre. It’s a total treat. It’s the shit – as the cool kids say.
Exceptional and unmissable. Hot foot it to Sheffield while you can.