Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opened at the Sheffield Crucible in February for a standard three-week run. The show is based on a BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, about a working-class lad who attended his school prom in a scarlet frock. Director Jonathan Butterell saw the potential to create a replica Billy Elliot and he brought in two co-writers to turn the material into a comic musical. Word of mouth was excellent and the show received immediate offers for a West End transfer.
The action starts in a Sheffield comp where a class of 16-year-olds are being given career advice by a computer. Blond misfit Jamie is encouraged to train as a forklift-truck driver. But he has other ideas. With his mum’s help he sets off in search of his inner self as a gender-fluid diva. The story falls into two parts. First, Jamie must perform in drag at a local cabaret club. Second, he must gatecrash his end-of-term party dressed as a woman. Technically, these missions are identical. And the second is far less demanding than the first. Which is the wrong way around. Script doctors attest that the hero’s obstacles must increase, not decrease in difficulty. And the script spends too much time with Jamie as he learns the tricks of the trade from a threesome of older trannies, Sandra Bollock, Laika Virgin and Tray Sophisticay.
But this interlude allows the material to transcend Jamie’s story and to become a wider portrait of Sheffield and its just-about-managing classes. Jamie’s mum (Josie Walker) is the show’s emotional core. She struggles to hold her crumbling family together and to protect Jamie from his homophobic dad who has suffered a fit of moral disgust and is ready to start afresh with a woman who will give him a ‘real son’. Margaret’s best friend Ray (played by the sardonically sexy Mina Anwar) joins the campaign against the teachers who want to stop Jamie from appearing in drag at the school bash. Jamie finds an unlikely Muslim ally in the classroom. Pritti Pasha is a bullied nerd in a hijab who offers him moral support and at the same time discovers her pride in her own identity. She starts off as a mousy swot, then grows into Jamie’s Islamic fag-hag, and she ends up as the nemesis of the classroom tyrant, Dean, who may be secretly gay. Pritti’s story is one of those fabulous acts of transformation that stamps a show indelibly on one’s mind. She’s played by the quietly dazzling Lucie Shorthouse.
The outstanding performance belongs to John McCrea in the title role. His slender physique and his gaunt, sheet-white face recall the young Bowie, but with an added hint of gangly camp innocence. McCrea has it all as a musical performer. He can dance, he can sing, he can find the laughs, he can deliver the role’s emotional truth, and he can steer the attention of the crowd wherever it needs to go. McCrea’s show — and it is his show — will attract everything it deserves. Huge audiences. Gongs galore. Stardom for the younger leads. And deserved acclaim for the older cast members, especially Josie Walker whose second-act performance of ‘He’s My Boy’ drew tears from the crowd at press night. The box office is taking bookings until the spring. Better move fast. This production won’t hang around. Broadway next.
Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit reveals the horrors of the conflict in Ukraine. Actors recite witness statements and perform various war-zone scenarios. There are several storylines moving in parallel and it’s very hard to follow what’s going on because the production is starved of resources. Fifteen parts are played by just seven actors, and there’s no indication when a change of costume marks the arrival of a new character. You just have to guess. It doesn’t help that the writer has an unbeatable talent for creating characters you’d run a mile to avoid. Everyone here is brittle, selfish, humourless and dim-witted. And they’re all hopping mad with each other, all the time, so the show unfolds as a yelling festival. We watch screaming matches at checkpoints, vicious tirades between nasty teenagers, sexual assaults by bored soldiers, long bickering sessions between old crones and snarly youngsters. There’s a horrific torture scene involving a captured journalist and her homophobic, anti-Semitic rapist but it feels so gratuitous as to be pornographic.
The show ends with three twits arguing over a chicken that got squashed by a car. Director Vicky Featherstone has replicated the forested hinterland of Ukraine on stage in the form of a copse. Higgledy-piggledy tree trunks arranged around the playing area render the actors semi-visible during much of the action. Rather annoying, I expect, for the performers to be hidden from their audience by the director. For viewers it was something of a relief.