Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Lest anybody doubt how far Britain has come in terms of acceptance of LGBT youth, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie includes a central character that simply could not have existed a few short years ago. Jamie New is a Year 11 student in a Sheffield high school, out and proud and, for the most part, accepted by his school friends.

John McCrea’s Jamie is a force of nature from the off, all legs, lip and self-assurance. But as with all the best stage creations, there are layers beneath the surface: Jamie needs to come out again, this time for his desire to become a teenage drag queen. And while his mother is as supportive as possible, his estranged father’s dismissiveness towards his son lies at the heart of Jamie’s inner demons.

Loosely based on a 2011 BBC3 documentary about then 16-year-old Jamie Campbell as he prepared to attend his high school’s prom in full drag, Tom MacRae’s book and lyrics, like the documentary, are strongest when rejoicing in Jamie’s optimism, which is boosted by huge support from his mother.

Josie Walker’s Margaret is the emotional core around which the cyclone of Jamie’s life gathers speed. Hers is the performance of the evening, especially with the two ballads ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’.

In support, Lucie Shorthouse’s Pritti, Jamie’s studious, geeky, Muslim best friend is the greatest of an immensely strong cast of students, all of whom imbue the classroom dance scenes with a dynamism that is infectious. They are helped by choreography from hip-hop troupe ZooNation’s Kate Prince that adds further layers of effervescence.

There is but one choreographic misstep, with a contemporary dance duo while Walker sings ‘If I Met Myself Again’. It feels both out of character with the rest of the show’s choreography, and distracts from the power of Walker’s vocals and MacRae’s lyrics.

A further glitch in the otherwise excellent production (originally staged at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield) is an unusually lacklustre performance from Phil Nichol as drag clothing store owner Hugo and his alter ego, Loco Chanelle.

The character is the closest the show comes to a fairy godmother, both providing Jamie with his first drag costume and coincidentally meeting him during his lowest point in Act II, spurring him on to confront his demons. For such a central role, Hugo needs to be stronger in writing, characterisation and performance.

That aforementioned low point in Act II would be the obvious point for a musical number, but one is curiously missing. And that is a shame, for generally the songs – with music by The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells, performed by the band under the musical direction of Theo Jamieson – are excellent, and very well judged in terms of being both contained pop songs and narrative drivers.

Anna Fleischle’s boxy set incorporates black-and-white projections of Sheffield streets with splashes of colour expressing Jamie’s huge personality.

The whole thing reeks of Wizard of Oz-style imagery – the New family’s kitchen is even painted in a yellow matching that of Dorothy’s brick road, and Jamie’s idealised high heels are ruby red – even before the reference is name checked in dialogue.

And like the land of Oz, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is something of a fairy tale. That it is partly based on a real-life story only serves to enhance the magic, culminating in one of British theatre’s great new works.