I don’t know if it is by force of circumstance or design, but Leeds Grand Theatre has come up with yet another feel-good musical to cheer us post-lockdown. OK, I realise that there are very few miserable musicals, although I did see one, which will remain nameless, not so long ago, but the theme of overcoming adversity and being yourself was common to all of them.
The story in this case is that of a gay 16 year-old schoolboy, Jamie New, played brilliantly by Layton Williams, who, despite being told by his careers teacher that his talents and likely qualifications point him in the direction of becoming a fork-lift truck driver, has dreams of treading the boards as a drag artist. Obviously his classmates give him a hard time, especially the bully, Dean Paxton played by George Sampson who is both verbally and physically threatening to Jamie and Pritti Pasha, played by Sharan Phull, the other form misfit. She is a muslim and very clever, but while her dream of becoming a doctor is a little more conventional than Jamie’s, this unlikely pair form a strong bond which helps both of them to cope.
When it is obvious from him being a young child that he will not be following in the footsteps of his macho father, played by Cameron Johnson, he is disowned and his mother left to bring Jamie up alone. Once more this is a case of strong bonding both with his mum Margaret, Amy Ellen Richardson, and Ray, Shobna Gulati who is Margaret’s best friend. Margaret is the stoic supportive mother trying desperately to make ends meet whilst Ray is the ballsy woman scared of no-one and becomes a kind of female surrogate father figure. She also has most of the killer lines, many of which are hilarious put downs. She delivers these superbly well but when you have worked alongside one of the most gifted and prodigiously talented comedy writers and performers of all time, the late, and still much missed, Victoria Wood, some of the magic is bound to rub off. She is also great at spotting bargains and turns up with half-price offers from Poundland such as After Seven mints or Kat-Kits from the market.
When Jamie gets a pair of red platform high heels for his birthday from his mother, he decides that he will go all out for his dream and pays a visit to Hugo at his drag dress shop. Hugo, played superbly by Shane Ritchie, was once a drag artist himself having worked under the moniker Loco Chanelle. He also becomes part of team Jamie and takes him under his wing. This sets the tone for the rest of the show with the two factions, of pro and anti Jamie. When Jamie informs everyone that he will be going to the school prom in drag this puts Miss Hedge, Lara Denning, the aforementioned careers teacher firmly in the anti Jamie camp because of a complaint by one of the pupil’s parents, who has caught wind of this. Unsurprisingly they prove to be those of Dean Paxton.
From then on it is a battle between the two sides to win over the hearts and minds of the neutrals in the class. A battle which, although having lots of very clever and funny lines, gave the second half of the show a pantomime feeling. This was enhanced by the occasional shouts and comments from members of the audience, along with the odd cheer, boo and hiss. Oh yes it was!
The songs, written by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, who also wrote the book, spanned the gamut of emotions from euphoria to despair, and were uniformly excellent without a filler in sight.
I don’t think that it is too much of a spoiler to say that the right side ended up winning. The fact that it is based on the documentary made by Firecracker in 2011 kind of gave the game away. This was also one of those special nights at the Grand Theatre where there was a pre-show ‘do’ with the actual Jamie, real surname Campbell, being present in the bar along with his mother, to have a seemingly interminable procession of fans wanting to have a selfie taken with him. I am also reliably informed by the daughter of one of my writing colleagues that there were a couple of Gogglebox people in attendance.
In addition to the stars of stage and screen the event seemed to have coincided with the annual drag acts convention as the audience had more than its normal share of glamorous dresses, some more outrageous than others, but all obviously exquisitely made. As Dolly Parton, the inspiration for more drag acts than most, once said, ‘It costs me a fortune to look this trashy!’ Not entirely fair but subtlety and good taste are not the objectives in this form of entertainment, the main aim is to assume an alter ego and shout ‘Look at me!’ That is not just my analysis but the crux of the show, highlighted when Jamie sings ‘Ugly In An Ugly World’ to reveal how he feels about his real self.
The show itself was superbly acted, danced, sung, staged and lit although I did have a bit of trouble hearing some of the words. It was probably more due to aural shortcomings in my advancing years than the sound desk, as everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes.
There are a couple of things which I really didn’t understand about the show. I accept that it is a musical based on a real person and not a documentary, but I can’t help wondering why the action was moved from ‘a small, former mining village in County Durham’ to the metropolis of Sheffield. The programme notes say that Jonathan Butterell, the Director and Co-writer is from the Steel City but I suspect that the whole dynamic regarding attitudes towards a gay 16 year-old would be radically changed by the switch, not only concerning classmates, but more importantly the teacher. Although the documentary was first broadcast in 2011, the stage play was not premiered until November 2017 and even using the attitudes of the former, I don’t see why wanting to become a drag artist for a kid in Sheffield with all of the facilities available at the city’s drama schools etc, would be anymore outrageous than someone of his academic level wanting to be an accountant or solicitor. I suppose it could have been moved so as not to draw comparison with Billy Elliot but only the writer knows for sure.
The other thing I found odd was that, at the end of the show, the whole cast assembled on the stage and did a couple of parting dance moves, the peripheral characters first leading up to the main ones at the end, obviously isolating Jamie so that he could milk the rapturous applause for all he was worth, and good luck to him he deserved to. There was not a mention nor any acknowledgement of the band who had been performing brilliantly throughout the show from a raised stage at the back of the set. They were superb and would have deserved their moment in the spotlight. I would also have thought that they might have invited the real Jamie, and his lovely mother, up to take a bow, as without them there would have been no show at all. For all I know they might have asked him and, if so, I apologise for my assumption.
When I was Jamie’s age in the play, homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence, the only drag acts we saw were Danny LaRue on TV, or the Pantomime Dame. There was no such thing as a Prom Night which, keeping in mind the first of those facts, was probably no bad thing as I went to an all-boys school. We also didn’t have a careers teacher but someone from ‘outside’ paid us a visit once and we were asked to complete a questionnaire about our achievements and aspirations. Despite saying that I wanted to be a barrister I was told that my most suitable employment prospect was as a journalist. My writing career, as yet unpaid, began a mere 55 years later so I would urge Jamie not to give up on the fork-lift truck driving practice.
In conclusion Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a great musical in all its aspects and the audience left the theatre buzzing. You only have until Sunday, 7th November to catch it, and catch it you should.
For more details and bookings, please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/everybodys-talking-about-jamie/
All images supplied by Leeds Heritage Theatres