The cobwebs are finally being blown away from some of those old West End theatres. It feels like something’s changing. And that’s nowhere more evident than in this musical, which premiered at Sheffield Crucible last year, a piece that is bang up to date with gender politics and the sea change in social norms.
Based on a 2011 documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the show is unapologetically, hilariously, aggressively camp, the queerest of queer, and all the more brilliant for being so.
With music from frontman of The Feeling, Dan Gillespie Sells, and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae, it follows 16-year-old Jamie New – already mocked at school for being gay – who reveals that he wants to be a drag queen and to wear a dress to the school prom.
The show feels strangely familiar, most obviously comparable to Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots, but without the miners’ strike of the former and with much better songs than the latter. Despite its familiarity, though, it is alive and fresh.
The expected plot points are there – a bigoted father, a bullying classmate – but one of the most thrilling aspects is that there’s not really any adversity. Jamie, as played by John McCrea, is such a force of nature that we know he can overcome all the attacks, the mockery and abuse. He’s bulletproof, as one character calls him.
Echoes of chart hits emerge frequently from Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells’ songs. They fuse pop, funk and soul for the big tunes like opening number 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.
A tortured tangle of vicarious living, unconditional support and sad resignation, Walker’s Margaret is on the inside everything that Jamie wears so boldly on the outside – and vice versa.
John McCrea’s pale complexion, white hair and delicate features are at odds with the fabulous clothes he dons. He brings charm and sass, struts and sashays, to every detail of his huge performance, and is matched by comic brilliance from Mina Anwar as family friend Ray.
Everything about Anna Fleischle’s stylish set, all squares and cubes, reinforces the idea of Jamie as a splash of lurid glitter in the greyness of life. The school set – grey walls, old wooden desks – is a dull contrast to Jamie’s clothes and his personality.
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.