Everybody should soon be talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. This new British musical is by turns courageous and outrageous.
Inspired by the true life story of a 16 year old schoolboy who was the subject of a 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the musical charts his journey towards self-realisation through inhabiting the exaggerated alter ego of a drag persona.
It powerfully shows Jamie winning his mother’s unconditional acceptance but it’s his absent father’s cruel rejection of him, to which Tom MacRae’s finely textured book and lyrics lend shape, drama and form.
Based on an idea by director Jonathan Butterell, the particular pleasure of this vibrant and moving production is how deeply it also contextualises Jamie’s life inside the classroom as well as outside, where he is (un)naturally an outsider – mercilessly bullied by the leader of the school’s bad boy pack, Dean Paxton, and urged not to rock the boat by careers teacher Miss Hedge. She suggests that a career as a fork-lift truck driver might be better suited to him than his preferred choice of drag entertainer. It also shows him earning a kind of kinship with Hugo, a middle-aged drag queen who runs a shop that sells dresses to men.
There are lots of competing tensions in the book that keep it constantly engaging, even as singer-songwriter Dan Gillespie Sells (lead singer and principal songwriter for The Feeling) ups the ante with a series of soulful introspective songs for individual characters to express their emotions, and other more bouncy and extrovert group numbers.
The presence of a sea of school desks puts one in mind of a more adolescent version of Matilda, and it shares that show’s DNA in its depiction of a character triumphing against the odds by being true to themselves. There’s also plenty of hints of other musicals where drag has featured heavily, from Priscilla Queen of the Desert to Kinky Boots, but here it is not being tried on for effect but as an honest expression of a boy trying to find his way to becoming a man (who happens to like dressing as a woman). I found it to be the most moving exploration of what drag actually means since La Cage Aux Folles.
That’s partly thanks to a wonderfully fresh and woundingly truthful performance from John McCrea as Jamie, with Josie Walker as his mum Margaret and Lucie Shorthouse as his best friend Pritti Pasha in loving support.
Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has consistently produced some of the best regional premieres of new British musicals over the last few years, including This is My Family (2013) and Flowers for Mrs Harris (2016) – this is another winner about someone who refuses to be a loser.