Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Book and lyrics by Tom MacRae, music by Dan Gillespie Sells, from an idea by Jonathan Butterill
Nica Burns, Ian Osborne, TC Beech Ltd and Sheffield Theatres
The Lowry, Salford
The post-lockdown return to live entertainment has been understandably cautious. Producers reluctant to commit to major works until they are sure audiences will turn up offer shows that have attracted crowds in the past. The Lowry bucks the trend with a major production of Everybody's Talking About Jamie. Their faith in the audience is rewarded with a raucous crowd who not only applaud and cheer but even catcall spontaneously. This may be due to relief at the return of live theatre or because Layton Williams, the star of the show, comes from the Manchester area but it certainly makes for a stirring atmosphere.
At 16, Jamie New (Layton Williams) is reaching the end of his school career. An exasperated careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Lara Denning), tries to persuade pupils to be realistic in their aspirations and Jamie, although openly gay, is reluctant to reveal his objective is to become a drag queen. Jamie’s mother Margaret (Amy Ellen Richardson) and family friend Ray (Shobna Gulati) are supportive but conceal Jamie’s choice from his alienated and homophobic father (Cameron Johnson—who doubles as resident director). Faded drag queen Loco Chanelle (Shane Richie) offers Jamie outfits and teaches tricks of the drag trade but, as hostility towards Jamie’s choice grows, he must decide whether to proceed.
Musicals are regarded as the most glamourous type of theatre, but the script anchors the plot in a recognisable mundane reality. Jamie’s schoolmates are self-obsessed, feral creatures who would drive any teacher to despair. Amy Ellen Richardson and Shobna Gulati are an inspired dry comic double act surviving on knock-off chocolate and the type of lipstick used by Paris Hilton when she goes shopping in Aldi. This is a shabby environment in which drag queens adjust their costumes, and indeed themselves, with gaffer tape. Yet, typical of the positive vibe that surrounds the production, Jamie’s family and the drag queens, although mutton dressed as lamb, have a battered dignity. The script has even been tweaked to be bang up to date with references to COVID and super spreaders.
Typical of a warm-hearted show, author Tom MacRae is most comfortable with sympathetic characters. The school bully and abrasive teacher are sketchy figures, while Shane Richie’s gravel-voiced drag queen turns out to be a most unusual mentor / father figure. There is a positive sense that change and deviations from the norm should be welcomed rather than feared. Although less dramatic than Jamie’s choice, Sharan Phull, as his best friend Pritti, also has the courage to be non-conformist and gets to bring down the house with a show-stopping line of dialogue.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie is a rare production where the individual elements merge to provide a cohesive whole. Anna Fleischle’s, ultra-modern set is hardly convincing as a worn-out inner-city school, but its adaptability—neon lights on desks, hinged walls that fold out to reveal kitchens or shops—makes for a sleek, rapid-moving show and accords with the theme of changing for the better .
Kate Prince’s choreography adapts as the plot develops. In the first act, dance moves from pop videos—the cast ‘voguing’ in unison—are intimidating: suggestive of a threatening mob. By the second act, as sympathies shift towards Jamie’s viewpoint, the dancing becomes more expansive and celebratory.
Layton Williams is in full charisma mode as Jamie. Williams portrays Jamie as someone brave enough to risk something different but human enough to be scared of the consequences. It is an inspiring, highly appealing approach.
The quality of Everybody's Talking About Jamie is high enough to make audiences believe live entertainment might finally be coming out of the darkness.
Reviewer: David Cunningham