MADE in Yorkshire, “the hit musical for today” began life at Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 2017. Now comes its York premiere in the Teen Version with a cast of 13 to 19-year-olds led by Ryan Addyman, 17, from Knaresborough, in his York Stage debut.
Inspired by the Firecracker documentary Jamie: Drag Queen At 16, composer Dan Gillespie Sells (from Horsham’s finest pop practitioners 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.
Since Jamie’s blossoming, two on-topic television shows have had a stellar impact: the couture and coiffeur catwalk and cat-talk contests of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the Beeb and the sass, too-cool-for-school dress sense and multi-cultural diversity of Sex Education, the Netflix binge-watch through lockdowns.
Sex Education shares Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s bold humour, jagged wit and spot-on social awareness as a barometer of our changing times and attitudes towards gender, bigotry, bullying, homophobia, absentee fathers and the right to self-expression.
Meet the Year 11 pupils of Mayfield School, a typical comprehensive classroom of 16-year-olds full of hopes and aspirations, filtered through the realities of life in a northern town.
Among them is Addyman’s Jamie New, from a Sheffield council estate, but feeling out of place, so restless at sweet 16 to be “something and someone fabulous”. After Billy Liar’s Billy Fisher and Kes’s Billy Casper, here is another young Yorkshire dreamer in need of escape from the grey grime, this time in a classic teen rebel story, told from the teen perspective, but rooted in kitchen-sink northern drama rather than the white-toothed gleam of an American high-school musical.
It does nevertheless share one characteristic with the all-American Hairspray, for example, by giving the adult viewpoint in spades. Step forward Jamie’s world-weary, self-sacrificial, ever supportive mum Margaret (Maggie Wakeling, in terrific voice in her heartfelt ballads, If I Met Myself Again and especially He’s My Boy, the show’s most powerful vocal performance).
Always on the lookout for a bargain and ready with a comforting word or a putdown for authority is Margaret’s no-nonsense, cheery best friend Ray (an amusing Eve Clark), and further support comes from dress-shop boss Hugo/veteran drag act Loco Chanelle (resolute Sam Roberts).
Giving Jamie grief are his stay-away, mullet-haired Dad (Tyler Costello) and narrow-minded teacher Miss Hedge (Jaia Rowland).
The Teen Edition necessitates giving these adult roles to young actors but all respond with performances that convey the age gap, not least in their singing performances.
As for the teens playing teens, not only Addyman’s Jamie scores high marks among the classroom performers, so too do Jack Hambleton, outstanding yet again on a York stage as the everybody-hating, self-loathing bully Dean Paxton, the big fish soon to lose his small pond, and Erin Childs’ quietly impressive, self-assured doctor-in-waiting Pritti Pasha, whose solo number It Means Beautiful is an Act II highlight.
Above all else, everyone will be talking about Addyman’s Jamie. A new face to York audiences, he is Jamie to the manner born: high of voice and heels, a shaker and a heartbreaker, a lippy kid in lip gloss, confident on the swan surface but naïve and vulnerable, wanting to strut before he can walk. Ugly In This Ugly World is his best number, almost matched by his kitchen duet with Wakeling’s Margaret, My Man, Your Boy.
Serious points are made in MacRae’s book, where the multiple confrontations carry both poignancy and punch, and you will love the Yorkshireness of it all: the blunt, knowing humour and the rough-rouge glamour of drag queens Sandra Bollock (George Hopwood), Tray Sophistacay (George Connell) and Laika Virgin (Harvey Jardine), Sheffield’s answer to the travelling trio in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
Gillespie Sells’ tunes and MacRae’s lyrics are a delight too, led off by the immediately infectious And You Don’t Even Know It, through the irresistible title number to the show-closing defining statement of Out Of The Darkness (A Place Where We Belong).
Musical director Jessica Viner works with a recorded score, but never sits back, always in view of the hugely energetic cast from the mezzanine level. Emily Taylor’s choreography is as vigorous and fun as ever, relished by leads, supports and ensemble alike.
Jo Street’s wardrobe and Phoebe Kilvington’s make-up and hair add to the spectacle, while the design combines glamour with grit: the John Cooper Studio is bedecked in shiny tinfoil and gold leaf with room for Margaret’s kitchen, the classroom and Hugo’s shop to glide on and off.
Nik Briggs’s direction goes to the top of the class, capturing the spirit of a show that “celebrates being yourself and finding a place where you belong”. Individuality and teamwork in tandem, the place where everyone here belongs is on stage, once more emphasising why the arts should never be undervalued in young lives, why there should always be a place for the Jamies of this world to express themselves.
How apt that this thrilling, uplifting production’s weekend climax should coincide with York Pride.
York Stage in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Teen Edition, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm, sold out; Saturday, 2.30pm (last few tickets) and 7.30pm, sold out. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.