Everybody’s Talking About Jamie star John McCrea: ‘It’s fun to play a character so wildly different from you’
After generating a buzz in Sheffield, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is transferring to London. The show’s star tells Mark Shenton how his early stage career gave him a taste for performing in the West End
John McCrea may be just 25, but he has been dreaming of West End stardom for most of his life. Ever since stepping out on to the London Palladium stage at the age of nine, he has yearned to return to Theatreland in a lead role.
I meet the mild-mannered actor hours before the first preview of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, in which he plays the title role, at the Apollo Theatre, and we talk about his first role on the London stage.
It came about after McCrea overheard a conversation at his Saturday theatre class about a select few of the pupils being asked to audition for a stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang starring Michael Ball.
“I remember saying I really liked that film and wanted to go,” he says. “I was warned that the other kids had more experience and were a bit older than me, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up. But I got in and the others didn’t.”
Attitude was the key, he says: “I took it really seriously.” It was only a small part – “I was an unnamed sewer kid” – but McCrea knew this was what he wanted to do.
His determination mirrors that of his character Jamie New in the pop musical, which tells the story of a 16-year-old schoolboy living on a Sheffield council estate, who beats the bullies and overcomes prejudice to go to his school prom in full drag.
McCrea grew up some distance from Sheffield in Aldershot, Surrey, known as the home of the British army. He admits to being a bit of a tearaway: “When I was six or seven, my parents decided to send me to a weekend theatre class to burn off some energy, as they knew I didn’t like sport,” he says. “I never stopped.”
He went on to attend the Sylvia Young Theatre School from the age of 12 to 16, collecting a string of theatre credits along the way. He played the oldest Von Trapp child Friedrich in The Sound of Music in 2006 (also at the London Palladium) and performed in a national tour of The King and I before going on to train at Italia Conti.
“This is the gayest reference ever, but there’s a wonderful Patti LuPone quote where she says she couldn’t get into trouble on stage,” he says. “My behaviour was suddenly so much better because I could concentrate on something I enjoyed. My life, which had been blurry, went into focus.”
McCrea considers himself extremely fortunate to have found his vocation so early and to have parents who supported his choice of career. But, he says: “It was a shock as no one in the family had done anything like it”.
He continues: “Theatre is so accepting – it was wonderful finding kids of my own age who had the same likes as I did. Especially as a boy who wanted to dance, sing and act.
“I didn’t care and I don’t think anyone was particular bothered by me. When we first meet Jamie [in the show], he’s so willing and ready to go out and do what he wants to do, too.”
Q&A: John McCrea
What was your first non-theatre job? In an American sweet shop when I left school.
What was your first professional theatre job? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium when I was nine.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Wait until you’re 18 before you go on to a different college. I was really impatient: I wanted to go Arts Ed, Mountview or Guildford, but I was desperate to carry on, so I went to Italia Conti.
Who or what was your biggest influence? All of my wonderful, talented friends. They inspire me.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Claim your space and dare to be a bit different.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I’d like to have been a poet.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not of my own, but I’m respectful of those that do, so I do it for their benefit. Michael Ball really didn’t like people whistling in the wings in Chitty, so I would never do it. But I can’t whistle anyway.
McCrea auditioned to play the lead at the show’s first workshop in September 2014. “I didn’t have an agent at the time,” he says. But a woman he had known at Sylvia Young’s, who had become an agent, sent him a message about coming in to read for director Jonathan Butterell.
“An audition notice had come through and they were really struggling to find people to send,” he recalls. “So she was going to send me ‘under the table’. She told me not to tell anyone because she wasn’t supposed to submit her own applications.”
McCrea feels lucky to have even got into the room. “I hadn’t really done a role spectacular enough for anyone to know about me. So it was serendipitous that I even got seen.”
Workshopping was an unfamiliar way of working for him at the time. “I was green – I knew how to go and do a job, but doing workshops was new to me,” he says. “Having a loose skeleton of a character and having the freedom to fill it yourself was something I didn’t really understand until I got there.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has a book and lyrics by Tom MacRae and music by Dan Gillespie Sells, from the band the Feeling. The protagonist is based on Jamie Campbell – from County Durham rather than Sheffield – whose story was told in the 2011 BBC3 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.
McCrea says: “I’d seen the documentary when it was on television – I was at theatre school when it was broadcast – but I couldn’t get hold of it to see it again.”
The creative team took the decision not to watch it again until after the workshop. A second workshop was held a year later, by which stage it had changed “massively” – and not just the show. “I like to think my accent has got significantly better since the first one,” McCrea laughs.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie ran for three weeks at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre earlier this year to critical and audience acclaim. West End producer Nica Burns decided to bring it to London – the first time she has staged a new musical.
McCrea says: “No one has done the role before, so there’s no template for it, and because it has been three years of my life, I know him so well now.”
John McCrea's ’s top tips for aspiring performers
1. Go to the theatre as often as you can, even if it means doing a front-of-house job – I worked at the Donmar Warehouse.
2. Read as much as you can.
3. Don’t give up.
But do not mix up the actor with Jamie Campbell or Jamie New. “We’re very different people,” McCrea says. “I don’t know the real Jamie that well, so all I can speak of is the character I’m playing – and I’m very different.”
McCrea is quick to point out that he is no longer 16, not from Sheffield and is not an only child. He adds: “I’ve been lucky enough never to feel like an outcast. I went to a theatre school, surrounded by people who had the exact same ambitions as I did. So I was really lucky and I never felt bullied.”
He did not meet the real Jamie until the show went into full production at the Crucible, although he had seen him in the flesh.
“I knew he worked at [vintage clothes store] Rokit in Covent Garden, so I sometimes snuck in there to see him,” McCrea says. “We both live in east London, so every so often I’d see him out and about, but I never approached him. I didn’t know how much he knew about the whole process and I didn’t want to put my foot in it.”
He continues: “It must be strange. I can’t imagine someone coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m playing you and know so much about you,’ but him having no idea who I am. But once we met in Sheffield, it was useful.”
Running into Campbell on Shaftesbury Avenue shortly before meeting McCrea, I nearly mistake him for the actor. The physical resemblance is amplified by the shock of dyed blond hair both have adopted, but the resemblance goes further than that. “His physicality is interesting,” McCrea says, “He’s quite like me in that we have very long limbs and are quite frantic.”
Playing the part is a “huge responsibility”, he adds. “It’s one I take very seriously – to speak for people in the audience who are a lot closer to him than I am. But it’s also so much fun, too: it’s rare that you get to play a character so wildly different from you.”
After the buzz that started at its open dress rehearsals in Sheffield, the show became a surprise hit, secured the London transfer and won a string of awards. These include two UK Theatre awards last month: best musical production and best performance in a musical for McCrea himself.
Discussing why it has connected with audiences, he says: “It would be easy to pigeonhole this show as something niche about wanting to be a drag queen, but really it’s about doing what you want to do and supporting each other,” he says.
“As long as you are being as authentic as you can be, you will be happy, and the people around you will be happy too. And you don’t have to look too far outside yourself to find it.”
CV: John McCrea
Born: 1992, Aldershot
Training: Sylvia Young Theatre School; Italia Conti
Landmark productions: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, London Palladium (2002), The Sound of Music, London Palladium (2006), Rent, Cockpit Theatre, London (2012), The Busker’s Opera, Park Theatre, London (2016), Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; Apollo Theatre, London (2017)
Awards: UK Theatre award for best performance in a musical for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2017)
Agent: Rachael Swanston at Conway van Gelder
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is previewing at London’s Apollo Theatre before opening on November 22