Book and Lyrics: Tom McRae
Music: Dan Gillespie-Sells
Director: Matt Ryan
Jamie New isn’t like the other boys at his Sheffield school. Openly gay, he is the butt of homophobic bullying from other boys, although the girls, especially his best friend Pritti – who is also the subject of bullying – are generally supportive. So when Miss Hedge asks the class their career plans as they prepare to leave, Jamie, whose “brain is the wrong shape for school,” is nervous about revealing his secret dream – to be a drag queen. But he does have the support of his mum and her best friend Ray, as well as his new friend, Hugo, who owns the local shop catering to the dress needs of drag queens. Mum bought him a pair of high heels for his 16th birthday while Hugo had the drag alter ego Loco Chanelle and sees a kindred spirit in Jamie. Hugo pulls some strings and Jamie performs at Legs Eleven, a local drag club, which sets the school buzzing. But not everyone in school seems happy: Jamie is told he will not be accepted into the prom dressed in drag after complaints from a parent.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is ultimately a feelgood show, preaching tolerance, acceptance and inclusion while calling out the unthinking bigotry that, sadly, still exists in society today. The tunes are in turns uplifting and soulful as we join Jamie on his journey. And it is a journey – despite his ebullient camp personality, Jamie is wracked with doubts about his choices, shown in harsh 3D when having mastered his high heels, he struggles to leave the safety of home and be seen in public wearing them. But ultimately, setbacks are overcome and Jamie is set on the road to fulfil his dream. The show isn’t perfect, though: the bad guys are determinedly two-dimensional. Dean, the school bully, is dealt with a little too easily, while Jamie’s dad’s destructive attitudes, claiming Jamie isn’t a real boy, remain in another century. In addition, the sound balance is occasionally off, making the words of the louder, more raucous, songs difficult to hear clearly.
However, these are minor niggles in what is a sweeping narrative. At this performance, understudy Finton Flynn played Jamie. And what a superb job Flynn made. Maybe a touch hesitant at first, he is nevertheless totally believable as we accompany him on Jamie’s journey, seeing his self-doubt and ultimate triumph. And there’s plenty of humour in Tom Macrae’s sharp script as well as some terrific physical gags – Flynn has Jamie staggering like a newborn foal when he first tries on his high heels which is a joy to watch, while the three drag queens Jamie meets backstage at the club have an excellent rapport and presence.
Much of the humour is delivered deadpan by Shobna Gulati as Jamie’s mum’s friend, Ray, as she supports them both unconditionally. Rebecca McKinnis is a revelation as Jamie’s mum, Margaret and the journey she goes on, trying to be both parents to a growing boy. Her song about that, He’s My Boy, is delivered with passion and soul; when it finishes, there’s a moment of silence in the auditorium during which the proverbial pin could be heard to drop before well-deserved uproarious applause. John Partridge’s Hugo provides a semi-tragic figure as he relives past glories, seeing something of himself in Jamie and inspiring him. Also supporting Jamie is Talia Palamathanan’s Pritti, whose own journey is well drawn and who also has a superb and soulful singing voice. Giovanna Fletcher brings us the stitched-up teacher Miss Hedge – it’s easy to empathise as she tries to keep an unruly class of students preparing to leave school forever in check, and with the difficult situation in which she finds herself as she reacts to the parental complaint about Jamie’s prom plans.
Matt Ryan’s sharp direction keeps the whole flowing while Kate Prince’s muscular choreography perfectly matches the show’s sass. Anna Fleischle’s ingenious rectilinear monochrome set transports us from location to location seamlessly, with, for example, school desks effortlessly doubling up as a runway, stage and even a brick wall.
The time flies by and we feel uplifted as we leave having seen the triumph of inclusion over bigotry in this life-affirming show. If you only see one musical this year about a teenage boy aspiring to be a drag queen … make it Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Runs until 27 January 2024 and on tour