REVIEW: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the Sheffield musical, not the film, in Leeds

Shobna Gulati’s Ray, Amy Ellen Richardson’s Margaret and Layton Williams’s Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Leeds Grand Theatre

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres/Nica Burns, at Leeds Grand Theatre, until Sunday. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsheritagetheatres.com. *****

EVERYBODY’S been talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie coming to the Leeds Grand for ages: a two-year wait for early bookers after Covid shut down fun.

“The hit musical for today” began life at Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 2017 and finally makes the 44-mile trip to Leeds after West End success and a screen conversion to film release in September.

Inspired by the Firecracker documentary Jamie: Drag Queen At 16, composer Dan Gillespie Sells (from the pop band The Feeling) and writer/lyricist Tom MacRae worked their magic from an original idea by director and co-writer Jonathan Butterell.

What emerged was the completion of a populist trilogy of Sheffield comedy dramas: the defiant spirit and sheer balls of The Full Monty, the classroom politics and fledgling frustrations of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, and now Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the unapologetic story of the boy who sometimes to be wants to be a girl, wear a dress to the school prom and be a drag queen.

Now you can throw in the sass, the too-cool-for-school dress sense and the multi-cultural diversity of Sex Education, the Netflix binge-watch through lockdowns, as another barometer of Jamie’s topicality for our changing times and attitudes towards gender, bigotry, bullying, homophobia, absentee fathers and the right to self-expression.

Take a chance, if you have the time pre-show, to cast an eye over the programme’s pocket-profiles of Mayfield School Class of 2020, asking Jamie and his classmates: What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s your favourite thing about school? It could be any comprehensive classroom of 16-year-olds, capturing hopes, aspirations and realities with wit and spot-on social awareness. Another testament to just how switched on, relevant, yet boldly humorous this show is.

“Jamie”, on the one hand, is a classic teen rebel story, told from the teen perspective of Jamie New (Bury-born Layton Williams, reprising his West End role), but it is not merely a down-with-the-kids high-school musical.

Class act: Layton Williams’s Jamie New and his Mayfield School classmates in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Even more so than in Hairspray, it gives the adult viewpoint too, whether Jamie’s world-weary but ever supportive mum Margaret (Amy Ellen Richardson, expressed powerfully through her belting ballads, If I Met Myself Again and He’s My Boy); gobby best friend Ray (Shobna Gulati, wonderful);  Jamie’s stay-away Dad (Cameron Johnson); narrow-minded teacher Miss Hedge (Lara Denning), or dress-shop boss Hugo/veteran drag act Loco Chanelle (special guest Shane Richie as you have never heard or seen him before but will want to again!).

Serious points are made, confrontations have both poignancy and punch, but what’s not to love about the sheer bl**dy Yorkshireness of it all: from the frank, no-nonsense humour that mocks the ridiculous careers advice offered at schools to the raucous, rough-rouge glamour, tattoos and all, of Sheffield drag queens Sandra Bollock (Garry Lee), Laika Virgi (JP McCue) and Tray Sophisticay (Rhys Taylor), as musical pizzazz meets kitchen-sink drama.

The songs are a knock-out, led off by the immediately infectious And You Don’t Even Know It, through the irresistible title number and Jamie’s heartfelt Ugly In This Ugly World, to the show-closing defining statement of Out Of The Darkness (A Place Where We Belong). Sam Coates’s band have a ball with Gillespie Sells’ orchestrations.

Matt Ryan’s direction, Kate Prince’s choreography and Anna Fleischle’s designs are all fast-moving and slick but with room for grit too amid the glitter. You will note the brick designs on the side of the desks, for example.

Not only Williams’s Jamie scores high marks among the classroom performances, so too do George Sampson’s everybody-hating, self-loathing bully Dean Paxton and Sharan Phull’s self-assured, doctor-in-waiting Pritti Pasha.

Yet, of course, everyone is talking about Williams’s Jamie New, so restless at sweet 16 to be “something and someone fabulous”. His Jamie is a mover, a peacock groover, a fantabulous fusion of lip and lip gloss, high heels and higher hopes, outwardly confident yet naïve, in that teenage way, and vulnerable too. What a performance.

Yorkshire has given us Billy Liar’s Billy Fisher, Kes’s Billy Casper, and now Jamie New, disparate young dreamers in need of escape from the grey grime, but this time the story is so, so uplifting, emerging from darkness into the spotlight (and mirroring the return of live theatre from Covid quarantine to boot).

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Remaining performances: tonight, 7.30pm; tomorrow and Sunday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.