Dreams don’t always come true, but in smash-hit new British musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, teenaged Jamie New’s aspirations to become a drag queen edge closer to becoming a reality.
Opening night reviews in 2017 likened this story of Northern working-class boy chasing big dreams to homegrown success Billy Elliot and it certainly has the feel-good pleasures to prove it.
Now joining the rank of musicals captured for the big screen, Australian audiences can experience this dazzling musical for themselves in the cinemas, straight from London’s Apollo Theatre.
Banned from attending his high-school prom in drag, real-life 15-year-old Jamie Campbell’s story was captured in 2011 BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen, and soon after his story was adapted into a musical, which transferred to the West End after a stint at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
Nominated for five Olivier Awards, director Jonathan Butterell’s staging takes this true-to-life narrative and spins it into a flamboyantly campy show with a gratifyingly universal message about the importance of self-expression.
With a book by Tom MacRae, and catchy pop and rock-infused music from Dan Gillespie Sells, it’s hard not to get caught up in this production’s infectious energy. It’s also difficult not to notice the thread of similarities that this coming-of-age tale bears with other musicals like Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots.
It encapsulates the grit associated with the bigoted attitudes that seek to stamp on Jamie’s homosexuality; but also yields the irresistible joys that come with overcoming that narrow frame of mind – by embracing what Jamie (played by John McCrea) himself calls a “gender-bending work of art”.
The opening number (You Don’t Even Know It) drops the audience straight into a high-school classroom where words like “realistic expectations” are flung around from careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll).
Jamie, however, stands out from his peers, enraptured by a dream in which he can dress as he likes, all exuberant dresses and high heels.
There’s support from his single-mother Margaret (Josie Walker) and family friend Ray (Mina Anwar), who champion Jamie’s dreams while discovering exactly what’s involved in becoming a drag queen. It entails a lot more than donning on a dress and wig, as Hugo and his alter ego Loco Chanel (Phil Nichol) tells him.
With the support of his best friend Pritti (a crystal-clear performance from Lucie Shorthouse), Jamie eventually musters the confidence to smash through the small-town norms and stigma around his performative act.
More often times than not the musical holds up on its own. Act I is particularly engaging and fast-moving setting up Jamie’s world and relationships. But the show doesn’t always stand as steadily as Jamie does in his eye-catching, red-heeled pumps. Wobbling slightly as a fully-fledged musical, pacing issues inhibit this musical from truly flourishing. The book’s straightforward approach to Jamie’s dilemmas fall to typical antagonists, like the homophobic school bully, Dean (Luke Baxter) and his estranged Dad (Ken Christiansen), which play out in predictable fashion and cause Jamie to question his difference from others. But they don’t work to sketch out a redemptive storyline, and often other characters’ arcs are eschewed for its star player.
While snappy and memorable, Gillespie Sells’ songs are weighted down by MacRae’s repetitive lyrics, which tend to reinforce what’s already happening on stage. Many of these numbers are also reflective, which, while revealing its character’s thoughts (The Wall in My Head, If I Met Myself Again, Ugly in This Ugly World) hold back the potential of these moments to push much-needed storytelling.
Besides fostering some very compelling performances, Butterell’s direction exhibits bland blocking choices that often result in his leads standing in one spot for entire numbers. Technically, it’s not particularly sophisticated either. Video projection (Luke Halls) and set by Anna Fleischile are effective, but don’t add much to the overall numbers on stage. Lucy Carter’s lighting clunkily ends scenes with black-outs, resulting in a show that feels like it’s constantly stopping and starting, rather than flowing.
John McCrea’s star performance is the silver lining of this show. Instilling much of the character’s charming attitude into this musical’s personality, his Jamie lifts the show’s spirits. He flaunts, dances and struts with attitude, but he’s also extremely self-assured and confident when he’s not playing his drag alter-ego – and McCrea flickers between the two with absolute ease.
Josie Walker as Jamie’s mother is also a highlight, and her ballad He’s My Boy is a raw, vulnerable showstopper.
As the latest musical to be captured on film, it’s fine at best. It’s a hard task to translate stage to screen: there’s the desire to get the details right without omitting the full picture. Here, close-ups are employed in strange spots and wide shots too few to get a good grasp of what’s happening on the entire stage.
As a whole, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels a bit green and undercooked, but its positive messaging and vitality are obvious. Even when it stumbles, it always wears its heart on its sleeve, and its energy is so tenable that you can’t help but admire its spirit.
Everybody’s Talking Abut Jamie also screens at Dendy Opera Quays (November 30) and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta (November 30)