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I was a bit of a snooty-boots when the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opened in Sheffield in 2017. It was full of exuberant, fresh pop; it abounded with youthful vitality; it told a life-affirming tale about a resilient 16-year-old schoolboy who overcomes self-doubt and bullying to flaunt his inner drag-queen and find self-acceptance. Others raved, but while I offered praise, I expressed my reservations – so it’s not as though I can claim any credit for its West End transfer, or the big-screen version coming this autumn.
Composer Dan Gillespie Sells, writer Tom MacRae and director Jonathan Butterell drew from the real-life story – as seen on a 2011 TV documentary – of Jamie Campbell, a then-teenager from Bishop Auckland, who battled school authorities and homophobic peers to attend his school prom in a dress. Four years ago, I fretted that the fictionalised, Sheffield-set show had missed a trick in overlooking a darker side to the story; an interview with Campbell in the programme suggested subsequent loneliness in London. I found it wanting, too, beside its obvious comparator, Billy Elliot; though it celebrates cross-dressing as an act of courage, especially in the face of paternal rejection, it doesn’t offer the same awe at skills unleashed against the odds.
So why, having returned to the Apollo for the musical’s West End reopening, do I feel compelled to bump a grudging four stars up to an ecstatic five? Partly this is sheer gratitude at the show having survived the grimmest year and come out fighting. On Tuesday, it marked its thousandth performance, 14 months overdue. Given what we’ve been through, you’d have to be a total curmudgeon not to warm to its infectious carpe diem spirit, issuing a rallying cry for us all to come out of our psychological bunkers and follow its hero’s transformational example.
Tom MacRae has added jokes to the droll script so that it alludes to some of the Covid trials that Jamie and fellow pupils have been going through. “My dad’s a key-worker,” runs one gag. “No he’s not, he’s a locksmith!” is the puerile rejoinder. But what comes across even more strongly on rewatching the show, with Noah Thomas as Jamie New – and bringing to the part bashfulness, arrogant defiance and a lithe leggy allure – is that it doesn’t only chime with the times, it looks built to last.
Yes, it has its longueurs: while Shane Richie is a hoot as Loco Chanelle, a faded drag-act cum surrogate father, those scenes have the padded quality of the falsies sold in his shiny, subversive dress-shop. But the pace of it, the spirit of it rings true for all the contrivance and artifice – it always knows where it’s going thematically and, like its subject, it refuses to apologise for doing it in its own way.
The songs remain a deceptively light marvel: Melissa Jacques raises the roof with her aching single-mum’s ode to her flawed and fabulous boy. Hiba Elchikhe as Jamie’s Muslim best-friend Pritti melts hearts with her plangent hymn to self-belief, “It Means Beautiful”. And the final clap-along chorus number, “Out of the Darkness”, couldn’t better sum up our need for self-liberation, a sense of belonging – and Dame Theatre herself.
Booking until August 29. Info: 0330 333 4809; everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk