Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre

Thursday 30 November 2017

Everybody has been talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and dusting it with the glitter of 4 and 5 star reviews as though glitter were about to be banned.

Trouble is we’ve seen this sort of brouhaha before. And you don’t have to go back too far to look at the West End’s ever-expanding graveyard of British Musicals that were garlanded with superlatives at the time but were either near misses (Bend it Like Beckham) or totally lame misfires (cf. Mrs Henderson Presents, The Girls, Made in Dagenham). Critics are all too ready to big up the latest crock.

All of those had had previous incarnations as successful British films. ETAJ is based on a documentary: BBC 3’s Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 (available on BBC iPlayer). We’d say it was a new twist but we just remembered that other doc-to-stage musical Grey Gardens. Legend has it theatrical Empressario Nica Burns read a rave in The Times, rushed up to Sheffield to catch the show at a matinee late in its 3 week run and decided instantly to drag it to London. You can see why.

Jamie New (John McCrea) is sixteen, lives with his doting mother Margaret (Josie Walker) on a council estate in Sheffield (County Durham in the doc), has been disowned by his father as he has a tendency to sashay around in heels and frocks; his ambition is to beat prejudice (and the school bully) become a drag artiste and attend the school prom in a dress. And that’s the story. As a prom jeopardy plot line it’s not exactly up there with the bucket of pig’s blood of Carrie is it?

But if one flags McCrea up as the best lead performance by an unknown young male musical actor since Charlie Stemp in Half a Sixpence it would seem we were damning with faint praise as that show was practically yesterday. We’re not. McCrea struts and commands the stage like a gawky gazelle. He can do sad and bitchy and pathetic and feisty and vulnerable and irritating and hilarious. A lot of hilarious. Sometimes all at the same time. When he’s on stage your eyes are drawn to him like moths to a peroxide flame, which is just as well – Jamie loves to be the centre of attention.

It’s a stonkingly funny show thanks to the work of Tom MacRae. His book is frequently hilarious and his lyrics are tight and sometimes so rammed into the tunes it’s difficult to keep up. The music (The Feeling‘s frontman Dan Gillespie Sells) in it’s poppy, buoyantly catchy way is – whisper it – rather good with at least a couple of the songs threatening to have lives beyond the show. Kate Prince’s choreography is exuberant. Special mentions too for Mina Anwar as Margaret’s understanding best friend and Jamie’s Muslim best friend Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse, delightful) performing “It Means Beautiful”. Walker is terrific, if she doesn’t get your tear ducts prickling during the Act 2 stand out “He’s My Boy” there really is nothing we can do for you.

Jonathan Butterell‘s production is cracking, but not perfect. It navigates itself very close to the precipice of mawkish at times and some of the dense lyrics are not articulated clearly enough. The opening half hour is so peppy it’s disappointing when things start to stumble briefly. Strangely enough it drags in a slightly awkward drag shop scene where the kindly cross-dressing legend Hugo (Phil Nichol) takes Jamie under his wing as he helps him choose his drag act frocky horror.

These are but small complaints. This show is everything Kinky Boots wanted to be but isn’t.

2 hours 45 minutes approx…depends how long you ovate for.

Rating

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