Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is an apt title for the musical that has just fizzed and frolicked its way into the West End. That’s because everyone is indeed talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, almost as much as they are talking about Hamilton, whose British premiere is scheduled for Dec. 21.
Jamie is highly unusual in both its origins and its subject matter. It was first staged in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, the creation of two men who had never written or composed for the theater before.
It is based on the true story of a working-class boy whose dream was to become a drag queen. It has received some of the most enthusiastic reviews I can recall. Unsurprisingly, Broadway producers are already crossing the Pond to see it.
Back in 2011 the BBC aired a documentary about Jamie Campbell, a gay 16-year-old who lived with his mother Margaret on an impoverished municipal estate in a former mining village near Durham, in north east England: a place, he said, “where the men are very much men and the women women.”
Always enjoying cross-dressing, he evolved a persona called Fifi la True, explaining that “I have to be true to myself, and that made me feel sexy and beautiful and fierce.”
A career-advice test hilariously suggested that Jamie should become a fork-lift driver or a prison guard. Actually, his long-term ambition was to sing and dance in drag in Las Vegas and his immediate one was to go to the school prom in a dress. And he did just that, supported by schoolmates who threatened to picket the dance when his teachers tried to ban him.
Jonathan Butterell, a director and choreographer who has worked on Broadway as well as in the West End, happened to catch the documentary as he surfed television channels.
As a gay man raised on a municipal estate on the edge of Sheffield—“very rough, very insular: people never went to the theatre, they never even went to the city center”—he identified with Jamie. He also saw the theatrical potential of what seemed to him “a fairytale.”
But who could transform it into the show he believed it could become? An introduction by the actor Michael Ball to two thirtysomethings with aspirations to collaborate on a musical brought the answer.
Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae had met on a Pride march in 2013 and saw that Jamie’s story was, in their words, “the kind that can burst into song.”
Sells is the lead singer and one of the founders of a successful British soft-rock group, The Feeling. MacRae, who is now based in Hollywood, has written frequently for television and is the creator of the sitcom Threesome. Both men came from humble backgrounds and went to British “comprehensives,” meaning state-funded high schools catering for children of very mixed abilities.
“Dan is a pop-music writer,” said MacRae, “I’m a pop-fiction writer trying to hit mass-market. Altogether, our sensibilities fell easily into the project.”
Would-be director, composer and librettist took that project to Daniel Evans, then the artistic supremo of Sheffield’s highly regarded Crucible Theatre, and he was sufficiently impressed by their obvious passion to commission what he admitted was “a huge risk financially and reputationally.”
Who could play Jamie, who must be onstage virtually throughout? Well, a friend happened to tell a tall, willowy but obscure actor and dancer called John McCrea about Butterell’s casting call. He arrived uninvited at the audition—and, says the director, “I knew instantly we had found him.”
Onstage, McCrea was and is confident yet needy, sassy yet vulnerable, and totally magnetic as a boy who has been renamed Jamie New and relocated from a Durham estate to an equally impoverished one in Sheffield itself.
“A career-making performance,” wrote Ann Treneman, chief theater critic of the London Times, in a five-star celebration of a “special piece of theatre.”
That review particularly struck the London impresario Nica Burns, since Treneman is a highly sophisticated American and not the obvious audience for a show about the hopes, struggles, frustrations and hard-won successes of a working-class Briton.
So Burns went to one of the last of the 19 performances that Jamie was scheduled to run in Sheffield and found herself exhilarated not only by the show itself but by the excitement of an audience that traversed the generations:
“I had this very traditional grandmother in a nice, thick, home-knitted twinset sitting next to me, and at the end she was on her feet with the rest of the audience, clapping away with all the strength she could muster. As for myself, I went wanting to have an emotional journey and I got it. I laughed a lot and I cried: once in the first act and twice in the second. It was incredibly moving. Uplifting too.”
Then and there she sought out Butterell and offered him one of the London theaters she co-owns, the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue.
It was, she knew, a massive risk to stage a musical whose 24-person cast contained not a single star in a 641-seat theater that had to be packed out if she was to recoup its production costs.
But ten months later, after some rewriting, the addition of three new songs, and a longer rehearsal time than was possible in Sheffield, Jamie is ensconced in the West End, the recipient of reviews variously acclaiming it as touching, funny, outrageous and joyous.
Jamie clearly resonates at a time when the nature of sexuality and gender is being hotly discussed in Britain, but it’s far from flag-waving or propagandist.
For Butterell, it’s simply “about a boy who wants to wear a dress” and, if political at all, “about the politics of the heart.” Others, too, see it as about self-discovery, self-acceptance, self-assertion, and emotional authenticity. “It would be easy to pigeonhole this show about wanting to be a drag queen,” says McCrea, “but really it’s about doing what you want to do and supporting each other.”
Thanks to a powerful performance by Josie Walker, the support of a devoted mother, one who feels that in Jamie “I had a son and a daughter in one labor,” is central to the show.
Almost as important is the support of another outsider at school, Lucie Shorthouse’s Pritti Pasha, a Muslim girl who hopes to become a doctor and provokes Jamie to say: “you, high achiever; me, high heels.” There’s a class bully and an estranged father who finds Jamie “disgusting,” but there’s also support from his other schoolmates. “The kids,” says MacRae, “are more accepting and tolerant than any kale-eating, middle-class liberal.”
The real Jamie came to see the show in rehearsal and felt that he “was looking at a mirror of my 16-year-old self.”
In fact, says MacRae, “he fell off the sofa in a foetal ball, sobbing. We had to stop for a bit while he pulled himself together.” And when she saw the musical at Sheffield’s Crucible Jamie’s mother, Margaret Campbell, found Jamie and his story equally authentic. “I was transported,” she said. “I lived through all those good, bad, shitty, whatever times again in two hours and by the end I felt I had been in a tumble dryer. I was wrung out emotionally.”
Together, they came onstage at the end of the show’s opening night in Sheffield. “They hugged each other and cried,” recalls Butterell. “The audience went wild. It was an incredible moment.”
Could the show eventually provoke wildness in New York too? Well, the musical Billy Elliot, which involved a would-be ballet dancer from a Durham mining community, ran for over 1,300 performances and won ten Tony awards after its Broadway opening in 2008.
“I think it has had such an impact for the same reason that Dear Evan Hansen is such a success,” says The Times’ Ann Treneman, “It’s hit material.”
“A lot of people are speculating about New York,” says Nica Burns. “Fingers crossed, Broadway.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre, London. Booking to April 21, 2018.