Imagine the surprise, on careers day in class, when 16-year-old Jamie demonstratively, declaratively states his aspirations to become nothing short of the most fabulous drag queen to ever rise from the environs of Sheffield. To the great consternation and concern of his teacher Miss Hedges (at my performance portrayed by a rather underpowered, uncertain Michelle Visage of Rupaul’s Drag Race) and his classmates, Jamie sets off on his inspiring journey to full expression, defying judgement, hostility and rejection.
This feel-good hit musical coasts along on the energy and goodwill of its cast and the skillful sensitivity of its musical score (most devastatingly in the second-act “He’s My Boy”, sung with raw soul by actress Rebecca McKinnis, acknowledging the great complexity of her love for her son, a bewildering mix of protectiveness and fear and anger and wonder and sadness-she emerges as the strongest and most poignant character of the show). The music and lyrics are a collaboration between Dan Gillespie Sells (of pop group The Feeling) and Tom MacRae, also responsible for the production’s script.
Its intentions, rightly so for a West End show, are towards big celebration and euphoria, but (especially and admirably in the second act) real life is allowed to flower enough for brief engagement with the more sour and dark aspects of Jamie’s story, entrenched behavioural threats to his stability and sense of self for a moment throwing him off course. His relationship with his father, although left commendably unresolved, is the narrative that suffers the greatest from its broad parameters.
With the assistance of a group of veteran drag queens down at the local club (who take Jamie under their fiercely watchful care) and former drag legend Loco Chanelle tenderly mentoring him in the finery of the profession (and the unequivocal support of his mom and “auntie” Ray), Jamie is given the solid foundation he needs to flourish. The unemphatic diversity on display in Jamie’s school is a laudable aspect to the production, a respectable reflection of the U.K. educational system (Jamie’s best friend, Pritti-a tender performance from Lucie Shorthouse-faces her own struggles against discrimination and prejudice as a young Muslim woman).
Anyone who thinks Jamie’s intention to attend his prom in a dress and heels will not be realised (and that the school will not come to his defense, even the token school bully and censorious administration) has clearly never seen this type of musical bauble before, an effervescent and buoyant slice of optimism. The audience floats out of the theatre on a high of the best of human conduct.
The only thing left tantalisingly absent is the scene of Jamie’s initial drag performance as his alter-ego Mimi Me-the first act rather frustratingly concludes just as he is to take the stage, leaving the audience to imagine myriad scenarios of (fabulous or fledgling) triumph. The show is based on a 2011 BBC3 documentary starring the real-life Jamie Campbell. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie books through 28/2019