Friday, 30 March 2018

Theatre Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

In the first quarter of 2018, I reckon I’ve willingly and spontaneously participated in more standing ovations than I have in the entire rest of my theatre going life.

I still find them a weird phenomenon. They’re not naturally British, are they? Too showy. And why is clapping better because you’re standing up anyway? IDK. But stand I have, with considerable unease obviously, loads so far this year.

The latest in my series of awkward standing is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the incredible musical retelling of the even more incredible real life story of a 16 year old drag queen going to his school prom in a dress. Given the introduction I’ve just given it, it goes without saying that I bloody loved this show and so has pretty much every other critic, blogger and normal human who has seen it as far as I can tell. Which is as it should be. I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who saw this show and didn’t love it.

Jamie is written by Dan Gillespie Sells (him off of The Feeling) and Tom MacRae - based on a BBC3 documentary about the real life Jamie - and they’ve created something really special. This is such an uplifting show that I 100% recommend as a way to restore your faith in humanity, and honestly who doesn’t need that at the moment? The music is great: catchy and memorable (the title song has finally shifted My Shot from Hamilton from my head!), using cleverly varied styles of music for different characters whilst still hanging together as a coherent whole. The music and book together strike exactly the right balance between happy and sad. The tougher scenes - be they of homophobia and other assorted prejudice or the internal struggles of various characters - are genuinely tough, and occasionally unpleasant, to watch. Reality is never shied away from. None of the characters are sugar coated. In fact the characterisation is great, particularly of Jamie and his mum, who are very much and very rightly the lead characters, but also of the supporting characters and even those who you would broadly class as the bad guys (resident school bigot Dean is actually one of the best developed characters of the lot for my money). None of them are one dimensional. As a Yorkshire expat, I also loved how much the writers embrace the Sheffield setting and use Yorkshire dialect. It made me feel at home, even if some of the Sheffield-centric jokes don’t quite travel (I laughed). It’s difficult to imagine a stronger and more defiant fuck you to the ‘the British musical is dead’ brigade than this gem of a show. 

The production is fab as well. Director Jonathan Butterell has delivered some solid gold theatrical magic in this show, which is so finely judged and finely paced it’s almost irritating. Anna Fleischle’s design is so bloody functional and efficient (properties of which I am a huge fan) but also looks wicked and is really effective. I loved the school set in particular and the hiding of the band within the backdrop. Kate Prince has done wonders with the choreography. It’s completely modern but also feels completely classically musical theatre too. And it has so much personality. There are a couple of sight line issues (from where I was sat), owing to the size of the stage I think, but overall this is a cracker of a production to match its cracker of a show.

And then there’s the cast. First of all, can we talk about how diverse they are? Different ages, different levels of professional experience (so many West End debuts are being made, which is always amazing to see but especially in a show of this quality), different races, different religions (a mainstream musical with two girls wearing hijabs shouldn’t be worthy of comment and yet), different body types, fabulous drag queens, the list could go on - and to a man and woman each of them outstanding. It’s incredibly heartening, depressingly worthy of comment, and a real credit to British theatre to see this cast knocking it out of the park on a West End stage. 

The show belongs to its title character though, really. John McCrae is force of nature. I’ve never (or at least exceptionally rarely) seen an actor who owns the stage and the audience as thoroughly as he does, nor an audience react to an actor the way they react to him. He shows astonishing emotional depth, has an incredible voice, moves like Beyoncé and does all of this in gravity defying heels. He’s already been acknowledged as a superstar and rightly so. If he doesn’t win the Olivier then I will riot (quietly). That said, he is run very close for the show by the sublime Josie Walker as his mum. She is phenomenal, probably the best female musical performance I’ve ever seen - and I’ve seen St Imelda a fair few times. She is so fundamentally lovable, so heartbreakingly sad and so utterly kick ass (if you’re a fan, think Carol in The Walking Dead but more northern and packing less heat). Her big solo number is literally show stopping. I also loved Mina Anwar as Ray, providing some perfectly timed comedy and northern soul as Ray. And shout out to the three actors playing the ‘villains’ in the show - I saw Luke Baker (school bully Dean), Rebecca McKinnis (understudy Miss Hedge) and Spencer Stafford (understudy Jamie’s dad) - who have the least fun parts to work with but still produce believeable, redeemable characters. Big love for fab understudies.

This show is just a ray of sunshine in a world that can seem pretty bleak at the moment. It’s genuinely life affirming stuff, a salutary lesson in what diversity really looks like (on stage and in real life) and a cracking advert for British theatre and British musicals. An utter, utter joy.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre.

My seat was C19 in the stalls (second row, there’s no row A). It was £65 and, sadly, I paid for it. 

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