Everybody really is talking about Jamie. Tom MacRae’s new musical turned heads when it premiered in Sheffield last year, and it’s turning even more with its hotly anticipated West End transfer.
Inspired by the 2011 BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, it follows the story of Jamie New, a gay teenager living in Yorkshire, who cherishes dreams of performing in drag and is determined to attend his high school prom wearing a dress.
Jonathan Butterell’s production, which ran for just 19 performances at the Sheffield Crucible but remains on Shaftesbury Avenue until April, stars John McCrea as the Jamie everyone is talking about, and boasts a score written by Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman of pop band The Feeling.
But are the critics feeling the love for MacRae’s new musical, or does it fail to fill their little world right up? Does Sells’ score soar on its West End arrival, or fall flat in London’s ears? Is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie a heartfelt, homegrown hit, or a no good, Northern non-starter?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – It’s here, it’s queer
Writer MacRae has largely worked in TV to date, collaborating on Doctor Who, Casualty, Lewis and more. What’s the critics’ verdict on this foray into theatre?
Pretty much everyone loves it, it turns out. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is “a true crowd-pleaser – big-hearted and joyous” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★ ), “a burst of joy in the heart of the West End” according to Tom Wicker (Time Out, ★★★★★ ), and “an upbeat, layered, coming-of-age story that will resonate with anyone who has ever wondered what on earth they should do with their life” according to Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★★★ ).
It’s “unapologetically, hilariously, aggressively camp, the queerest of queer, and all the more brilliant for being so,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★ ), while Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★ ) lauds a “glorious, gangling, graceful present from Sheffield”, and Ian Foster (There Ought To Be Clowns) admires a “proud piece of new British musical theatre and an equally proud piece of LGBT+ storytelling”
“It’s a story that’s painfully poignant at times, and screamingly funny at others,” relates Simon Button (Attitude, ★★★★★ ). “An “I’m here, I’m queer” musical that speaks directly to today’s LGBT+ youth in a way no other show ever has before.”
Such praise is matched all round, Adam Bloodworth (Metro, ★★★★ ) lauding it for “hitting the sweet spot between serious drama and delightful frivolity”, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★ ) calling it “a joyous, life-affirming Billy Elliot for an age struggling with the fluidities of gender identity”, and Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★★ ) rejoicing in an “inclusive and utterly joyful new musical.”
“What makes it so irresistible is that it doesn’t only talk about Jamie,” explains Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★ ). “Many of the characters are trapped by circumstance and expectation — even the onstage band is symbolically encased in a soulless breeze-block box. It’s about finding the courage to be yourself, but it’s also about the love you need on the way.”
Where the creative team have got it right, writes Nicky Sweetland (Broadway World, ★★★★ ), is “by putting a very typically British story of an underdog at the core; something that tugs on the heartstrings and is infinitely relatable on a number of levels.”
“MacRae’s book and lyrics tell the tale in such a scrappy, honest, hilarious way that the whole thing has delightful punch,” adds Bowie-Sell. “There’s swearing, selfies, rapping and pop-culture references galore – complete with some zinging one-liners – and as a result it feels as British as they come.”
“Butterell’s production is a high-impact blaze of colour, combining video projections with seamless scene changes and a live band above the stage,” describes Wicker. “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.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – Feeling it
Dan Gillespie Sells is best known as frontman of The Feeling, whose 2006 album Twelve Stops and Home sent a gloriously upbeat pop-rock jolt into the lives of teenage millennials. Will his first stage musical be as fondly remembered?
He “has written an immensely attractive score – bobbing along with a melodic pop bounce and catchy rhythmic insistence and rising to the emotional occasion with some eloquently poignant power ballads,” says Taylor, and most other critics agree.
For Foster, Sells’ score is “a breath of fresh air”, for Purves it smartly “channels disco energy and lyrical grace”, and for Bloodworth it’s “incredibly catchy.”
Hitchings praises Sells for his “easy sincerity” as he “combines poppy verve and a craving for the bittersweet”, while Wicker admires his score’s “deft mix of irresistibly catchy, pop-honed foot-tappers and truthful, heart-wrenching numbers”, and Bowie-Sell warns that “there are songs in this show which will make you weep.”
“Echoes of chart hits emerge frequently from Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells’ songs,” analyses Bano. “They fuse pop, funk and soul for the big tunes like opening number And You Don’t Even Know It, while mum Margaret (Josie Walker) has a couple of songs that lean on the likes of Joni Mitchell and Dusty Springfield for inspiration, particularly her reflection on wasted time If I Met Myself Again.”
Not everyone is as swept away by Sells’ score’s chirpy charm, though, Tim Auld (Telegraph, ★★★★ ) finding it “catchy” but “a little bit middle-aged”, and Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★ ) complaining that “some of the music is too loud and the lyrics are indistinct.”
There’s no such quibbles about Kate Prince’s choreography, though – “superb” according to Taylor, “exhilarating” according to Hemming – or over Anna Fleischle’s set, which “reinforces the idea of Jamie as a splash of lurid glitter in the greyness of life,” according to Bano.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – Sharp, sassy, sensational
Star of the show John McCrea has been performing on stage since the age of nine, when he landed a small part in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. He won a UK Theatre award for his turn during the show’s Sheffield run – is he likely to garner similar recognition in London?
It’s a cracking performance, that’s for sure. McCrea is “sassily charismatic” according to Hitchings, “gawky, vulnerable and magnetic” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★ ), and “fierce and fabulous, but also textured” according to Swain.
“McCrea is magnetic,” writes Hemming. “Mercurial, pin-precise, with legs like a young fawn’s. His Jamie is rebellious, fragile, loveable, and a tad obnoxious – his real journey is to separate self-expression from solipsism.”
“McCrea really is fabuloso: rake skinny, tall, topped by a peroxide hair-do and able to show vulnerability alongside camp sarcasm,” agrees Letts, while Bano praises him for bringing “charm and sass, struts and sashays, to every detail of his huge performance.”
“Charismatically sharp and sassy during the showstoppers, pulse-racingly choreographed by Kate Prince, he deftly reveals the ache of vulnerability behind his character’s catwalk strut,” echoes Wicker.
“McCrea doesn’t have quite the show-stopping voice you’d hope for in the lead,” writes Auld, supplying the only negative comment on his performance, “but he has bags of charisma and only the most stony of hearted would fail to wish his character the happy – if somewhat confectedly feel-good – conclusion that he’s given.”
There’s plenty of praise for his supporting cast, too. Lucie Shorthouse brings a “fantastic voice” and a “shrewd, quiet influence” to Jamie’s best friend Pritti, according to Taylor, and Josie Walker is “glorious in her introspective solos” according to Hitchings.
“From the brash brilliance of Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob as the drag trio ‘the Legs Eleven Girls’ to the more quiet confidence of Jamie’s best friend Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse), the show is defined by pride, by a lack of shame, by love and fun and the defeat of bigotry. It’s corny and sometimes trite, but it knows it and doesn’t care,” concludes Bano.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – Is it any good?
You bet it’s good. Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells’ new musical is a funny, feelgood story with a big heart and an important, timely message. MacRae’s book and lyrics have an undeniable, underdog charm to them, Sells’ score is a joyful blast of spunky, soulful pop rock, and Jonathan Butterell’s slick production has a sparkling central performance from John McCrea.
A glut of five and four-star reviews point to a smash-hit new musical. Everybody hasn’t just been talking about Jamie, they’ve been falling in love with him too.