Everybody loves an underdog success, and they don’t come much bigger than cross dressing musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Loosely inspired by the life of Jamie Campbell (subject of a BBC documentary, still on the I-Player), this fast paced musical struck an instant audience nerve when it premiered at the Sheffield Cucible in 2017. The show only ran for a few weeks, with West End producer Nica Burns catching it on the final matinee. In the best Hollywood tradition, she decided to fast track Jamie to a West End production. A film adaptation followed in 2021 (starring Layton Williams, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan and Sarah Lancashire) , and now the show is back for a second, extensive UK tour.
A trajectory like this isn’t just a fairytale – it’s a minor miracle. But it’s easy to see why this story of a Sheffield schoolboy who wants to be a drag queen has proved so popular. It comes across like a cross between Billy Elliot and Priscilla Queen of the Desert; it also reminded me of the popular Heathers musical (though is far less acerbic). Like Heathers, Jamie is a show about being a teenager, and will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like a misfit or an outsider.
To mark the differences with Campbell’s own life, the creative’s behind the show have renamed the lead character Jamie New. That’s the trio of composer, Dan Gillespie Sells (also lead singer of The Feeling), Tom Macrae (book and lyrics), and director/co-writer Jonathan Butterell.
‘At least a doctor is a proper career’, says by-the-book school careers advisor Miss Hedge (Hayley Tamaddon), keen to hammer home the reality of chasing an impossible dream. She’s right of course. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has its head in the clouds, and its feet on the ground, and doesn’t shy away from showing how ‘imposter syndrome’ can derail a person’s dreams (a posh word for self doubt).
A lot of the blame lands at the door of Jamie’s absent father (Akshay St Clair). Disgusted by the fact his son is gay, he wants nothing to do with him. I was half expecting a late in the day mea culpa from this father who doesn’t care; he merely doubles down after Jamie’s drag make over. A pleasing note of raw, real life, you don’t often find in musical theatre.
The show is driven by quality, ear worm melodies – exactly what you would expect from a pop musician. Some of Gillespie Sells’ songs would happily find a home on albums by Post Malone, or Dua Lipa. Directors who inherit a production initially moulded by someone else perhaps don’t get enough credit, but Matt Ryan keeps things moving at a fluid pace, aided by pin sharp, fizzy choreography from Katie Prince.
All the performances are strong. Rebecca McKinnis and Shobna Gulati – as Jamie’s mum and her surrogate sister Ray – serve as an important soundboard for the other characters’ actions. McKinnis’ gutsy delivery of the song ‘He’s My Boy’ is a particular stand-out.
The show’s secret weapon is Talia Palamathanan, fantastic as Jamie’s bookish, hijab wearing pal, Pritti (she also appeared in the film version, in a different capacity): Palamathanan’s scathing, last act putdown of gormless school bully Dean (Jordan Ricketts) is one of those speeches you want to store for future, handy reference. The always reliable John Patridge almost threatens to hijack proceedings as ageing mentor Hugo (drag name – Loco Chanelle).
But this is Ivano Turco’s show. Hard to believe he’s the fourth actor to play the part, because Jamie fits him like a velvet glove. Turco commands the stage in a winning mix of feistiness, vulnerability and charisma. This is the performance of a star in waiting. He’s also incredibly good looking as a woman: convincing enough to give a dyed in the wool rugby man an odd uncomfortable twinge.
Everyone’s Talking About Jamie is one of those shows that comes along once in a blue moon. A feel good musical that will appeal to a broad cross section of people, regardless of age, gender and cultural background.
Resistance is futile.