_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _27th JAN.

January 24, 2024

images © Matt Crockett

At a time when the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race has embedded itself within the cultural status quo – lingo, shorthand and all – it’s easy to forget just how wild the notion of a teenager wishing to be a drag queen was back in the (practically sepia-toned) days of 2011.

The BBC’s Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 landed at a time where gender identity, queer expression and drag as an art form were all still fairly taboo topics on the playground (and indeed, beyond). The entire reason Jamie Campbell’s brave and no frills (except where needed, of course) true story became a documentary was because at the time, the idea of a young schoolboy wanting to approach anything resembling drag was gobsmackingly daring and unheard of.

It’s something of a testimony to how far we’ve collectively come, then, that Jamie’s story is now viewed upon as being affirming, feel-good and even rather twee in a Billy Elliot sorted of underdog fashion, rather than anything outwardly sensationalist or divisive. Heck, RuPaul herself even gets a name check this time round.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a high energy, polished and irrepressibly feel-good musical adaptation of Drag Queen at 16 and Campbell’s story, depicting the tale of spunky young Sheffield teen, Jamie ‘New’ (Finton Flynn in the performance reviewed, Ivano Turco usually), who on his sixteenth birthday decides it’s finally time to start pursuing his dreams of becoming a drag performer.

“…a high energy, polished and irrepressibly feel-good musical adaptation.”

His deadbeat homophobe of a dad (Akshay St Clair) has long since done a runner, leaving Jamie to be supported by doting mum, Margaret (Rebecca McKinnis) and sassy family friend and confidante, Ray (TV and stage favourite Shobna Gulati). School is a hit and miss affair, thanks to overbearing teachers (I’m a Celeb winner Giovanna Fletcher in a confident supporting turn) and the customary class bully (Jordan Ricketts), but at least he has bookish, sweet-natured bestie Pritti (Talia Palamathanan) on hand for moral support and encouragement.

Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae’s book crackles with plenty of dry, caustic Northern wit and appropriate levels of feisty cattiness. It’s sharply written, naturalistic, with plenty to enjoy from neatly observed classroom banter to the chuckles and warmth of two old friends giggling over off-brand chocolate and romantic conquests. But even when tackling such heady issues as racial intolerance and parental abandonment, which it does with admirable frankness and maturity, Jamie still keeps things punchy and winning. It’s a frequently funny piece of stage storytelling, for sure, but there’s pathos and heartbreak in there, too.

“It’s a frequently funny piece of stage storytelling, for sure, but there’s pathos and heartbreak in there, too.”

Sells and Macrae’s score is a real asset here, too. From the funky, poppy vim and sass of opener ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’ as Jamie musicalises his longing for a more exciting and fabulous life, through to the hyperactivity of its titular anthem, there are toe-tappers and earworms throughout. Kate Prince’s dizzying, stomping choreography sadly only gets a handful of big moments to shine, usually courtesy of the excitable classroom kids, but it amplifies the kinetic ensemble numbers (such as the titular Act II opener) considerably. And, when Jamie stops to catch its breath, be prepared for some blinders and showstoppers of ballads – from McKinnis rending hearts with the searing, tearjerking ‘He’s My Boy’ through to Palamathanan’s delicate, stirring ode to self love and adoration in ‘It Means Beautiful’.

This latest touring production is immaculately staged, too, sacrificing very little of the London production’s now trademark slick, almost National Theatre-esque aesthetic. Anna Fleischle’s bold, interlocking, cuboid staging makes an immediate impression, pivoting and wheeling about and into itself, bandying between the bright, clean and modern stylings of a pop video or cabaret hall, back to the Earthy brick and steel of Sheffield’s alleyways and street corners. Lucy Carter’s vivid, technicolor lighting and Luke Halls video backdrops punctuate it all with verve and tangible production value throughout, and Fleischle’s costume work only gets more fabulous as the show goes on (and gets ever draggier). A great looking and sounding show, all round.

All eyes were on understudy Finton Flynn in the performance reviewed, stepping in last minute for regular Jamie, Ivano Turco. Tearing up each of Jamie’s (substantial) song and dance numbers with relish, Flynn put in a bravura turn, commanding the stage and injecting charisma, vitality and nerve to spare into a gorgeous, winning interpretation of the character. Having had the pleasure of seeing Turco perform in the lead role elsewhere, audiences can be assured that whether they catch principle Jamie or his understudy, you’ll be treated to an electric, funny and soulful performance.

Elsewhere, McKinnis puts in a stunning turn as Jamie’s mum, Margaret. Riffing and ripping the roof off during her two big belts, she is equally impressive in the quieter, unspoken and unsung moments. It’s a beautiful performance of quite rare subtlety, nuance and conviction in such a big, lavish musical. And, in a curious stroke of fate, having been able to have seen understudy Margaret, Georgina Hagen, in an earlier performance on the tour, the same praise can be shared for her as for the Jamies, too; Hagen is equally stellar and an earnest, vocal powerhouse in the role, too. Jamie‘s casting directors certainly know what they’re doing.

“…a beautiful performance of quite rare subtlety, nuance and conviction in such a big, lavish musical.”

Shobna Gulati is great fun and gets most of the big laughs as spirited family friend, Ray, and Tania Palamathanan is a loveable, grounding presence as Pritti. Stage and screen pro John Partridge mines every ounce of fabulousness and delicious, vaudevillian je ne sais quoi as Jamie’s drag mother, local legend ‘Loco Chanelle’, whilst also offering some beautifully understated and poignant moments as Chanelle’s IRL counterpart, Hugo. And he’s gamely accompanied by KY Kelly (Anthony Gyde), Garry Lee and David McNair who are a hoot as a trio of sharp-tongued, tape-tucking, chain smoking queens.

“So go and find your dance, go and find your voice, ‘cause the party’s only just beginning…’ Jamie croons during the show’s crowdpleaser of a curtain call (it hopefully isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that this vibrant, affirming joy of a show ends on a high).

If there’s plenty to be dismayed or depressed about in a post-Christmas, storm-laden, cost of living January, then Jamie New and pals are perfect company to remind us of not only what unites us, but also how far we have come and how much we have to be thankful for. A spirited, spunky musical that opines acceptance and self-love, sings from the heart, kicks up its authentic Jimmy Choo heels and invites you to step out of the darkness and into the spotlight.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is lit, legit and absolutely a must-see hit.

Big, vibrant and dazzling whilst also intimate, affirming and delicate at once, Jamie and pals serve up loveable characters, memorable tunes and a true story that makes for an exuberant, feel-good, sparkling diamanté of a show. Talk about dragnificent.


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