Venue: The Apollo Theatre, London

Production Run: Booking until 21 Apr 2018

Performance Reviewed: Wed 20 Dec 2017

With the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Kinky Boots now percolating drag through to the mainstream on both stage and screen, it’s easy to forget how unprecedented BBC Three’s Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 was when it first aired back in 2011. 

Telling the story of aspiring drag artist Jamie Campbell, who was at the time making waves in his County Durham hometown by planning to attend his school prom in drag, the documentary was championed by many in the LGBQT community as a bold, brave spotlight on a unique, distinctly 21st Century story.

Thankfully, the transition of Jamie’s story to the stage (by way of Sheffield), courtesy of Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MaCrae, channels this originality and modernity effortlessly; offering up a slice of musical theatre as fresh, distinctive yet authentic as that which inspired it. 

‘A New Musical for Today’, read many of the show’s early marketing and flyers.

They’re not wrong.

For all of its fabulousness, moments of visual flourish and spark, Jamie is a remarkably grounded piece of storytelling. Front and centre is the beautifully observed relationship between its lead (a star-making turn from John McCrea) and mum Margaret (Josie Walker) - a moving demonstration of selfless maternal instinct trumping bigotry and regressive thinking. Equally resonant, too, is the bond between Jamie and best friend Pritti (a stellar Lucie Shorthouse), which similarly touches upon a plethora of decidedly modern attitudes towards identity, love, sexuality and religion, without every getting heavy-handed. 

Much like the documentary before it, the frocks and lashes are the spectacle, but the relationships that enable and support Jamie to be exactly who he wants to be are the real heart here.

Yes, there are trips to a has-been drag costumier (a spirited supporting turn from Phil Nichol), hilarious visits to the backstage of such haunts as Legs Eleven, featuring such wonders as ‘Laika Virgin’ (Alex Antsey) and ‘Sandra Bollock’ (Daniel Jacob), and plenty of show-stopping, heel-kicking set pieces, but its in Jamie’s touching, delicate and perfectly pitched beats between its leads that it truly leaves its mark.

It’s all abetted tremendously by some fantastic original music from Sells and MaCrae. From the almost Morricone stylings of ‘The Legend of Loco Chanel’, the heartrending soliloquy of Walker’s ‘If I Met Myself Again’, to the irrepressible nu-Pop stylings of the titular Act II opener, Jamie offers up one of the most fun, characterful and vibrant new theatre soundtracks of recent memory.  

Couple it with Anna Fleischle and Lucy Carter’s dazzling, multi-dimensional, Curious-Incident-meets-Billy-Elliot lighting and set design, and Jonathan Butterell’s fluid, taught direction that is just as confident in the showier moments as it is highlighting the emotional nuances (see the wonderful execution of ‘It Means Beautiful’ in Act II for a masterful balance of visuals and intimate performance), and you have a show that rarely puts a step wrong.

No mean feat in those heels.

And what heels they will be to fill. John MaCrae owns every inch of the stage with his sassy, confident, vulnerable and commanding lead turn, channeling the real-life Campbell in this ‘New’ incarnation, without resorting to base mimicry. As best friend Pritti points out, he’s a mass of contradictions (“You’re smart… and you’re stupid”) and MaCrae hits every beat masterfully, be it striding across tabletops in six-inch heels, sassily laying out his talent, hopes and dreams (“Cause I’m a Superstar and you don’t even know it, in a Wonderbra and you don’t even know it”) or soul-searching as he attempts to battle his “Wall in My Head”. Pitch the character too broad, and he likely runs the risk of coming across conceited or annoying, dial him down too far and you lose his innate vitality. MaCrae, Butterel and co. pitch their Jamie New perfectly, and it’s a truly joyous new lead to welcome into theatredom.

Just as pivotal though, is Josie Walker’s Margaret. Sure, some of the narrative choices around her are a little rote (see: Jamie’s deadbeat, homophobic dad, pawning off her jewellery etc.), but Butterell admits to taking some artistic license with the story, and they’re all in service to the genuinely moving depiction of selfless motherly love that frames the whole piece, with Walker selling every moment with faultless, Earthy conviction. There’s a lot of fun to be had when she’s bandying with best friend Ray (a joyous, scene-snatching Nina Anwar), but so too does she tear up the more sombre moments of self-realisation. With beautiful, searing vocals and a truly brilliant grasp of character, Walker is just as fantastic and memorable as her on-stage son, offering up by some measure one of the finest co-lead performances you can catch on the West End right now.

Many have regarded Everybody’s Talking About Jamie as a Billy Elliot for the snapchat and instagram generation. And whilst it’s true that the two shows and stories share plenty of common ground both narratively and thematically, there’s just as much to celebrate here in Jamie’s own uniqueness. Its central character, for instance, is both steeped in reality whilst also being a wonderfully aggrandised icon for an audience who may have grown up more versed in gender fluidity and expression.

Like Elliot, though, this is a show able to both tug very naturally and profoundly on the heartstrings, whilst also being irrepressibly feel-good. Every inch of its execution fizzes with wit, colour and invention, but so too does the whole thing feel grounded in a very palpable reality. This is how kids in class speak. The bond between Margaret and Ray, be it recognising when one is wounding from an encounter with an ex, or simply joking over cheap Poundland imitations (After Sevens, anyone?), could be plucked from a Mike Leigh kitchen sink. Luke Baker does a faultless and admirable job depicting class bully Dean, offering a completely believable interpretation of that guy we all known and recognise from school days.

If Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 came into the world as a curio, a slightly unprecedented and even somewhat controversial look at a boy very much ahead of the curve, then its musical adaptation arrives at a slightly more progressive time (a fairly loaded statement considering it has only been a handful of years). With that being said, Jamie feels just as fresh, new and unexpected as Campbell’s story did before it. Positively bursting with engaging, loveable characters, performed by a truly stellar cast and company, and all set to an infectious, spirited and delightful new soundtrack, there’s a very good reason Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: he's bloody fabulous.

And now you know it.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets:  0330 333 4809  Official Website: Click Here

For more news, reviews and content, be sure to Follow Kyle on Twitter!