Everybody's Talking About Jamie review – drag musical from the Feeling frontman

Crucible, Sheffield
Dan Gillespie Sells has a lot to offer musical theatre, but this Billy Elliot-style story about a northern teen drag queen lacks drama

A northern working-class lad strikes a blow for freedom by flagrantly defying tribal expectations. That was the starting point for Billy Elliot, as it is for this faintly similar new musical, inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.

The music is by Dan Gillespie Sells, lead vocalist and songwriter for the Feeling, and the book and lyrics are by Tom MacRae, who has written for Doctor Who. Most of the show’s problems stem from the story. Transposing its real-life hero from Durham to Sheffield, it shows Jamie as a boy who periodically enjoys dressing as a girl: his idea of a perfect birthday present is a toweringly tall pair of platform shoes. From this, Jamie conceives the idea of going to the school prom in a dress. Taking expert guidance from a local costumier, Jamie road-tests his female persona at a drag club and overcomes a series of minor obstacles before fulfilling his dream of being accepted for who he is.

At every turn, the audience cheers Jamie on. However, it all seems a bit too easy. It is true that Jamie has to contend with the school bully and a conformist teacher, as well as the disdain of his largely absentee father. But he has a loyally supportive mum, the love of his fellow pupils and a self-belief that only occasionally flags. To make up for the lack of dramatic substance, MacRae has to fill out the story: the scene in which Jamie’s costume supplier reminisces about his own days as a drag queen called Loco Chanel is camply diverting but ultimately irrelevant.

The strength of the show lies in the songs, and Sells reveals an exceptional talent for writing for the female voice. Jamie’s mum has two great self-examining solo numbers, delivered by Josie Walker with a raw, emotional power that makes me wonder why she is not a big star. Jamie’s best friend, a Muslim girl who learns to embrace her femininity, is given two songs vivaciously rendered by Lucie Shorthouse. Even Jamie’s teacher has a lively number about modern art, deftly delivered by Tamsin Carroll. If Sells can match his talent to a more rewarding subject, he has a lot to offer musical theatre.

Raj Ghatak, Spencer Stafford and James Gillan.
Raj Ghatak, Spencer Stafford and James Gillan in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photograph: Johan Persson

The show, directed by Jonathan Butterell, who first came up with the idea, stands or falls by Jamie, and John McCrea is excellent. He is tall and willowy, highlighting the absurdity of a psychometric test that marks Jamie down as a fork-lift truck driver. McCrea also endows Jamie with a curious innocence: switching on and off the mini lights that adorn his habitual red dress, he says “I actually think it’s quite subtle”. Thanks to McCrea’s charm and Sells’s songs, we instinctively warm to Jamie. The show is lively and engaging but, like its transvestite hero, demands a fair amount of padding.

•At the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, until 25 February. Box office: 0114-249 6000.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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