Mary Woodward Review

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

***** 5 stars

How I wish this show had existed when I was younger – not only when I was miserable at school, but also when I was coming out but still very much closeted in the mid-1980s…  Back then you hid your identity: the only time you could be yourself was when safe among friends; you watched your back and your pronouns; and you and everyone around you was deeply hurting, struggling against the prevailing attitudes among the majority of people that we were ‘perverts’, ‘disgusting’, and deserved everything we got.  It was very rare to find anyone who still had any meaningful contact with their nearest relatives, and quite usual for people to have no family but that which they created for themselves.

Fast forward nearly forty years and, while it’s still not always easy being LGBTQ+, the audience reaction to Jamiegives me hope that kids and young people growing up today won’t suffer the incredible burden of fear, shame, and self-loathing that us oldies struggled against.

Jamie is a sixteen-year-old schoolboy in Sheffield.  He goes to a comprehensive school where his classmates are a very racially mixed bunch, mostly desperate to escape the boredom of their lives and their lack of prospects by becoming “famous”.  Jamie doesn’t fit in, and he knows it: his dream is to become a drag queen.  The only person he confides in is the other oddball in the class – Priti Pasha, the Muslim girl with a Hindu first name, who works hard because she wants to be a doctor.  Priti keeps her head down and works, ignoring the insults she gets thrown at her: Jamie is feistier and refuses either to be put down or to moderate his [pretty outrageous for Sheffield] behaviour.

Jamie is blessed with a loving and supportive mum, Margaret, who does her best to hide from her son the fact that his dad wants nothing to do with him.  Her best friend Ray questions the wisdom of this, and also tries to persuade Margaret to go out and get a life for herself instead of devoting herself to her son.  Miss Hedge, the careers teacher, tries to get Jamie to ‘get real’ and conform to the behaviour she feels appropriate. 

The end of year Prom is approaching, and Jamie decides he wants to go in a dress: his search leads him to Hugo, who encourages him to stop thinking about being ‘a boy in a dress’ and find the warrior drag queen inside him.  Hugo’s alter ego is the famous Loco Chanelle, who comes out of retirement to introduce Jamie’s first appearance at the drag club Legs Eleven.  Despite class bully Dean Paxton’s attempts to ruin this, Jamie’s a howling success and next day at school everybody’s talking about Jamie.

Buoyed by this success, Jamie resolves to attend Prom in a dress.  He meets a wall of opposition, discovers his dad’s real opinion of him, falls out with his mum, and seriously questions his whole identity – but in the end, realising that he does have the courage simply to be himself, to be real, attends the Prom as ‘a boy who sometimes likes being a girl’.  He even has the nobility to rise above Dean Paxton’s attempts to put him down, offering him the hand of friendship and insisting on dancing with him at the Prom.

This is a must-see show for so many reasons!  The music, the script, the set, the costumes, the lighting and the cast are all outstanding, and together combine to make an unforgettable evening that rightly ended with a standing ovation for the whole cast.  Song after song weaves its way into your head and your heart, expressing all the pain, the fear, the joy and the triumph of finding who you really are, and celebrating the astonishing range of difference among us all.  The script, based on real life Jamie and Margaret Campbell’s story, is scarily accurate in its depiction of the challenges of being sixteen and different, and of trying to find out who you are, while also offering the hope that there will be people reaching out to help you along the way.  

The set is a marvel – a simple box [with the live band up above the action] in which desks make a classroom and then are moved around to make a garden wall; Margaret’s kitchen is pulled out of one side of the set and then folded away again; Hugo’s shop and Legs Eleven’s dressing room are swiftly assembled and removed: it’s all beautifully choreographed and an integral part of the show.  The school uniforms are, alas, just school uniforms – but oh! the amazing drag costumes are a delight, as are the garments with which Jamie transforms himself – I lovedthe red dress, but also have a soft spot for the sparkly hot pants…

And then there’s the cast, who are without exception amazing – their energy and precision in the musical numbers was exhilarating.  Layton Williams shines as Jamie, his inner confusion well-covered most of the time with his sassy attitude, but bursting out when he discovers his mum’s been lying to him about his dad, and starts to question everything he’s ever known.  Amy Ellen Richardson is the sort of mum so many of us must wish we’d had – standing up for and battling on behalf of her son, encouraging him to be himself, and when he’s stormed out in a rage, melting our hearts with He’s my boy.  Sasha Loyota’s Ray is the auntie you’d want on your side in any battle – strong and fearless and never stinting her loving support.

Sharan Phull is superb as the shy wallflower/ swot Priti, whose quiet encouragement of her friend is constant, and who is truly magnificent in her refusal either to let Dean Paxton bring Jamie down or to allow Jamie quietly to go home and let everyone else go to the Prom without him.  George Sampson is a brilliant Dean Paxton – the sort of thuggish school bully everyone has nightmares about.  And Hugo / Loco Chanelle – what a triumph for understudy Rhys Taylor, going on for the indisposed Shane Richie!  I loved both personalities – the gentle, quietly encouraging drag shop owner and the irrepressible warrior queen made a splendid pair of people one would really want on one’s side in any situation.

The audience was completely engaged throughout the performance, their cheers and applause greeting every refusal to be put down or bullied, relishing the sass and attitude of the drag queens and joining in the affirmation of difference – as Priti says, “Stop waiting for permission to be you”.  The standing ovation at the final curtain was not only for the cast but for the underlying message of the show – love people for who they are, not for who you think they ought to be; celebrate difference, don’t suppress it; and don’t let anyone persuade you that you are not worthy of being loved just as you are.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 2nd April, for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/everybodys-talking-about-jamie-2022

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