'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' at the Apollo Theatre - a Review

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A couple of weeks ago I was looking for a slightly last-minute evening activity, came across the fact that the newest new musical in the West End - Everybody's Talking About Jamie - was starting previews the next night, and impulsively bought a couple of tickets. I knew the basic premise of the musical, who the writers were, and I'd even listened to the concept album a few times, but I still didn't know exactly what to expect.

It's a retelling of a true story featured in a 2011 BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which sort of tells you all you need to know in the title. For the stage show the County Durham setting is transplanted to Sheffield (cynically - is this to swerve accusations of being too Billy Elliot?). Although it premiered for a month-long run at The Crucible in Sheffield in February, the authors (Tom MacRae, and Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling) are both first-timers in the world of musicals, so the whole thing was a little bit of an unknown quantity - exciting!

Inside the corridors of the theatre are highly-'grammable mirrors emblazoned with empowering lyrics like, "you're a perfect work of art", which sets the tone for much of the evening. The set - by Anna Fleischle, also responsible for the costume design - is instantly recognisable as a classic British secondary school of a certain age. It also turns out to be inventive and flexible, transforming into several different settings throughout the evening. I particularly enjoyed the ease with which a dreary classroom became a fantasy catwalk scene, and then snapped right back again.

I was always - for whatever reason - a big fan of the long-running BBC school-set drama/soap Waterloo Road (always missed, never forgotten) and some aspects of this show reminded me of that one in a way that made my heart burst a little bit. Teenagers being funny and cruel, bold and insecure, clever and naive, hold a timeless appeal and this musical demostrates that expertly. It is also a very amusing, quick-witted show, with many lough-out-loud moments - some comedic lines even resulted in spontaneous applause (albeit from a potentially very generous opening night audience).

Much - but by no means all - of the humour comes from the character of Jamie New himself, played by John McCrea. The eponymous Jamie is a force of nature, carving out his own path in a world that wants him to set his sights a little narrower. McCrea imbues Jamie with a fierce, fabulous confidence, bordering on recklessness, yet tinged with an edge of vulnerability that makes the audience simultaneously root hard for him to succeed and dread the idea that he might get hurt in the process.

Josie Walker gives a powerhouse performance as Jamie's endlessly supportive mother Margaret - her solo songs pack some of the biggest emotional punches of the show, performed with the kind of skill and strength that surely must see her getting attention come awards season. Mina Anwar is scene-stealingly funny as their friend and general surrogate family member Ray. Being fiendishly thrifty myself, I especially appreciated a long-running gag about the slightly off-brand items she finds in the sales. Rounding off a trio of impressive women is Lucie Shorthouse, making her West End debut as Jamie's best friend Pritti, a straight-laced schoolgirl who acts as his confidante and biggest cheerleader (except perhaps his mum) while trying to remind him - and us - that she is the star of her own story too - "we're not just your backing singers, Jamie!". Shorthouse gets two beautiful songs, and knocks them out of the park.

One thing to note is the understated way in which this show demonstrates what inclusive casting can look like. Much like a comprehensive classroom in Sheffield would be, the cast of fantastic young actors is effortlessly made up of people of many different ethnicities, and, aside from an amusing incident where two girls accidentally turn up to the prom in matching hijabs, this has no significant bearing on their characters. It was refreshing.

Naturally, in a show about a wannabe teen drag queen, there are some truly tremendous drag performers, but they somewhat take a backseat for most of the school-set show. I presume if you're looking for more of that, you can nip up the road to Kinky Boots anyway!

The music had the audience toe-tapping and clapping along, and fuses British pop with a more musical theatre sensibility. There are songs to belt in the shower ('He's My Boy') and songs to dance around to in the living room ('Don't Even Know It') and much more besides.

One of the criticisms levelled at the show during its Sheffield run (and I must admit I don't know what changes, if any, have been made since then) was that Jamie doesn't have enough to struggle against because most people in his life are very supportive from the start. This is somewhat similar to the accusation that Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights lacks drama because it's 'only' about a Latina girl struggling to cope with university as a first-generation American, and first-generation college-goer (rather than, say, being pregnant or on drugs). I have no time for that criticism in either case. Is there anything braver or more vital - at any age - than finding the strength to be true to yourself, in whatever form it may take?

This is a neon-coloured, big-hearted piece of musical theatre about growing up and chasing your bliss, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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