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.

Remember Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art at York Theatre Royal? Now it’s online

Matthew Kelly as York-born poet W H Auden when Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art was rehearsed and staged at York Theatre Royal in August and September 2018. Picture: James Findlay

YORK Theatre Royal’s 2018 co-production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art has been made available to stream by OriginalTheatre Online.

Directed by Philip Franks, a second British tour was due to start this month with Matthew Kelly and David Yelland reprising their roles of poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

However, both the tour and a trip to New York for the Brits Off Broadway have been scrapped after the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

In turn, this has prompted The Original Theatre Company, the Theatre Royal’s co-producers, to release the production online.

Matthew Kelly as W H Auden and David Yelland as Benjamin Britten in The Habit Of Art, now available to stream through Original Theatre Online

Leeds playwright Bennett’s The Habit Of Art imagines a 1972 meeting between friends and collaborators Auden and Britten – their first in 30 years – where they mull over life, art, sexuality and death.

What drew Matthew Kelly to playing York-born Auden? “He has a razor-sharp wit and we have a very similar outlook about work which is the habit of art. I am the same,” he says.

“I have to keep working – I’m nearly 70 [his birthday falls on May 9] – not  because I need the money, but because the theory comes into play that the longer you hang on, the longer you will hang on. Otherwise you fall off the perch.”

The Habit Of Art requires Kelly to play an actor playing an actor playing a real-life person. If this sounds confusing, “No, it actually clarifies things,” says Kelly, clarifying things.

Philip Franks, director of The Habit Of Art, who also directed Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in The Tempest in York last summer

“It’s a very clever device because it means you can be funny about what you do, you can comment on it and you can explain stuff. You can come out of the play Caliban’s Day, which the actors are rehearsing, and then it’s a play about the fictional meeting of Auden and Britten. 

“What’s wonderful about Bennett’s play is, not only have you got the finest composer of our time and the finest poet of our time, but you also, in my opinion, have the greatest playwright of our time.” 

Kelly continues: “So, you’ve got all those words being sewn together by our greatest playwright, who’s kind, accessible, very erudite and talks about sex in a very earthy way.

“He also gives a voice to the unregarded, who don’t usually have a voice. Generally, the great people, the stars of our time, get the final word and the people who look after them, what are commonly called ‘the little people’, really don’t get any say at all. They are the forgotten heroes who nurtured these stars.”

“He’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love,” says Matthew Kelly of The Habit Of Art playwright Alan Bennett

Former Stars In Their Eyes presenter Kelly completed a hattrick of Bennett roles with The Habit Of Art, having appeared as unconventional teacher Hector in The History Boys in 2013 and Czech author Franz Kafka in Kafka’s Dick, opposite his son Matthew Rixon, as a younger Kafka, at York Theatre Royal in March 2001.

“We were hoping Alan Bennett would come to York because he lives in Leeds and it’s only a hop and a skip away, but he didn’t come,” recalls Kelly.

“A couple of years later, I met him at Heathrow and he came up to me and apologised for not coming to the York production. He was terribly kind about it. “Years later, I did The History Boys in Sheffield, then Kafka’s Dick again in Bath. On both those shows he sent champagne and a Good Luck postcard.

“He always knows what’s going on and he’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love. The great thing about Alan is he’s very supportive of all productions, although he doesn’t go and see them.”

Original Theatre Online is streaming a second touring production too: Ali Milles’s The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor and again directed by Franks. Both that show and The Habit Of Art can be streamed any time until June.

“We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls,” says The Original Theatre Company director Alastair Whatley.

Alastair Whatley, artistic director of The Original Theatre Company, says: “We know how disappointing it has been to our audiences, cast, creatives and Original Theatre to have to close our shows. We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls. 

“However, the Original Theatre Company operates with no Arts Council support and relies almost solely on the box-office takings. With our two productions of The Habit Of Art and The Croft both out on national tours, the immediate cancellations are financially devastating for us.

“But we are determined, wherever possible, to meet our financial commitments made to our actors, stage managers and suppliers, who are all dependent on us to survive the coming months.  

“Every penny we make through this online release will go to the people who helped make this show, who now find themselves in a hugely precarious financial position.”

Both plays are free to watch although The Original Theatre suggests a minimum donation of £2.50. 

For full streaming details, visit originaltheatreonline.com.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art heads from York to New York for Brits Off Broadway

Matthew Kelly, left, and David Yelland in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

YORK Theatre Royal’s co-production of Alan Bennett’s comedy The Habit Of Art with the Original Theatre Company is heading to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

Premiered in York in September 2018, Philip Franks’s show starring Matthew Kelly will be  one of eight productions featured in 59E59 Theaters’ annual celebration of theatre from the UK.

Franks’s production begins its second British tour in March ahead of the American dates from May 29 to June 28 in one of 59E59 Theaters’ three off-Broadway spaces, having first toured Britain in Autumn 2018.

The Habit Of Art director Philip Franks

Leeds playwright Bennett’s 2009 play imagines a meeting between friends and collaborators W.H. Auden, the York-born poet, and composer Benjamin Britten. Most of the original cast are in the latest production, including Kelly, David Yelland and Yorkshire actor Benjamin Chandler, who made his York Theatre Royal debut in the 2018 company.

Kelly says: “I’ve done Brits on Broadway before in [Hull playwright] Richard Bean’s play Toast, which is very different to The Habit Of Art. But Americans are going to love Alan Bennett because they think they’re going to see something very British.”

John Wark, left, and Ben Chandler in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Director Franks adds: “New York is the most wonderful city but there’s a huge challenge because it’s such an English play. I hope very much audiences will respond.”

The 2020 production of The Habit Of Art is produced by the Original Theatre Company and Anthology with Peter Stickney and York Theatre Royal.

Franks last directed in York in Summer 2019 when his Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of The Tempest ran at the Elizabethan pop-up theatre on the Castle car park.