Theatre: Once more with feeling

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: February 4, 2018 Last modified: February 6, 2018

Everyone’s Talking About Jamie
Apollo Theatre, London

Based on a BBC documentary, Jamie, Drag Queen at 16, Everyone’s Talking about Jamie, with music by Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman of chart toppers The Feeling, is unapologetically pop. In every sense of the word. It’s here to please and fulfils its remit to perfection. There’s little in the way of a story – forget comparisons with Billy Elliot which had the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a dramatic backdrop – Jamie is only ever going to end one way. Fabulously. It’s how we get there that is such a joy.

From the moment Jamie (John McCrea, no relation to book writer and lyricist Tom Macrae, he’s actually partnered to Gillespie Sells) is joined uncertainly by his teacher and Year 11 in “And You Don’t Even Know It” you can’t help thinking you know it already (it’s a musical, after all) but that in no way ­detracts from the sheer exuberance on show.

The surprises in Jamie are not confined to the big finish. This is a musical that keeps on giving. There is no let-up in commitment, energy or pace, which is modulated perfectly throughout. For every number in which Jamie dons a frock to put on a show, another allows his mother/best friend/drag mentor a moment of introspection. Is Margaret, his mum, doing the right thing in allowing her son to shine, albeit in high heels and glitter? “If I Meet Myself Again?” asks Margaret, would she, should she do things differently? It’s a heart-stopping moment in a score packed full of them.

Jamie’s estranged father is seldom seen, but the pain he inflicts on his trangressive teenage son from a distance feels as real as the conflict raging inside everyone but Jamie, who alone is set on a course from which he refuses to be diverted. Aided and abetted by his unfashionably studious Muslim best friend Pritti Pasha (the brilliant Lucie Shorthouse), Jamie heads DTL (Down that Leeds) to ­discover, with the help of semi-retired drag queen Loco Chanellle (Phil Nichol), the swan inside him. And what a majestic bird it is.

John McCrea (pictured) puts in a spellbinding performance, both in flat shoes and in heels. Never once does he allow himself the conceit of winking at the audience. For want of a better word, he plays his part straight throughout, and in doing so delivers one of the finest performances you’re likely to see on the West End stage for a long time to come. Jamie names his new persona Mimi Me, and having found a name (and a vocation), grows in stature physically and emotionally.

He’s ready to take on the world, but first has to navigate the treacherous waters of the school prom. “Limited Edition Prom Night Special”, sung with Margaret and her best friend, mum number 2 Ray (Mina Anwar perfectly balances pathos with ribaldry) is dragtastic and sets the scene for Pritti’s heart-wrencher, “It Means Beautiful”.

Pritti herself is a beautifully drawn character but there’s really only room in this musical for one star. Fortunately, no one told Josie Walker that. As Margaret, she brings down the house and opens the tear ducts on “He’s My Boy”.

A famous pop star once told me that: “You don’t know what courage is until you’ve walked in high heels through a crowd of football supporters.” As a 16-year-old, the real Jamie exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of fierce opposition in demanding to be allowed to wear his Marilyn dress to his school prom. The resulting denouement is not quite what you’d expect, and McRea brings this determination and joie de vivre ­compellingly to life.

Whether dismissing the school bully with a cleverer-than-you put-down, deflating his teachers’ objections with pin-sharp reasoning, or simply kicking up a storm with the rest of the (mostly) young and uniformly excellent cast to one of the best (and most hummable) scores of any recent musicals, Jamie shows his mettle in spades. He is utterly fearless, like this show, a hero come in the nick of time, and (I suspect) here to stay on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue for a while yet.

You’ll be talking about Jamie long after the lights have come down.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist