No musical theatre for a year? No wonder we’re all running so low on endorphins. This week - finally - the West End begins to spring back to all-singing, all-dancing life – and British success story Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is leading the way. The story of a teenage boy who wishes he could wear a dress to his school prom returns tonight, making it the first big musical to get its doors back open in the West End.
The show has been a staple there since 2017, where it arrived after a smash hit world premiere at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield six months earlier. But like the rest of theatreland, the show has been largely shuttered for the past year. Its reopening is all the more important because it tried to get back on its feet when restrictions were briefly lifted in December. In the end, only a clutch of performances were able to take place before the city was plunged into Tier 4. “None of us were naïve to the fact that it could be taken away so quickly. That was the energy of what we were seeing in the news, you couldn’t ignore it – it was so in your face,” says Noah Thomas, who plays Jamie in the show.
This time around it feels more definitive, says Hiba Elchikhe, who plays Jamie’s best friend Pritti. “We all felt like it could have been pulled from underneath us at any time, whereas now a lot of our cast have had either their first vaccine or both. Even getting on a train into work feels different now than it did in December, so we all feel optimistic and excited.”
The show will be fully refreshed for its return – its original creative team, including director Jonathan Butterell, songwriter Dan Gillespie Sells and choreographer Kate Prince, have joined rehearsals to get it ready. Set in a school in Sheffield, the show gets tweaked regularly to reflect what’s happening in real schools. If year elevens around the country are wearing face coverings in the corridors, so will the characters. Covid measures are tried and tested from the December reopening, and everyone feels safe: there’s mask-wearing, social distancing backstage, and actors and backstage team are all tested every 48 hours at a special testing hub at the Palace Theatre, which is usually home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which can only afford to reopen once it can do so at full capacity).
“I have to say, ticket sales are fantastic – people really want to come back,” says producer Nica Burns. She tells me that in the 10 days last December when her theatres opened, they surveyed the 25,000 audience members about the experience. They were asked if they felt safe, if they would come back with social distancing, and if they would recommend it to their friends. “We had 95% approval – they felt safe. I think that’s important. People need to feel confident, because even though we all feel better because the vaccination programme is rolling out so quickly, you want to know you’re being looked after and you’ll have a great evening,” she says.
Shiv Rabheru is now the show’s resident director and choreographer – basically he keeps the show up to scratch on a day-to-day basis – and he knows Jamie inside out. He was in the original cast before becoming the company dance captain, and then worked backstage on the UK tour. He also has a role in the upcoming film adaptation of the show. “I feel such an affiliation with Jamie as a character, in that he grows into what he wants to be. I feel like backstage, that’s what the team has done for me.” They’ve supported him to pursue his interest in directing, and he will direct a production of Spring Awakening at RADA this summer.
Thomas and Elchikhe signed onto the show for a year last January, so they had only been playing the roles for a few months and hadn’t “properly gotten into the swing of things,” says Elchikhe. She says that now it feels like starting afresh, doing a brand new show for the first time. Thomas agrees – he hadn’t even finished drama school when he got the lead role at the age of 20. “When I first got the job, it was so hectic – I had a million things to think about, I was fresh out of drama school, it’s my first job, and I’m leading a company.” He had the sense that some people felt he needed to prove himself, but now he’s had a year to breathe and understand the character of Jamie on a much deeper level.
During lockdown, he was “just going through every stage of being bored shitless, and then frustrated, and then finding weird moments of motivation and creativity, and then being bored again, then being really angry – it was this weird push and pull between every kind of human emotion. Coming back now, we’re all here laughing and smiling and happy, and it’s really eye-opening – maybe we were working ourselves too hard before, maybe we weren’t enjoying it enough and living in the moment.”
Burns was thrilled to be able to give her company their jobs back – “it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation for them and not doing it cuts to their heart” – and wants to be able to contribute to getting the economy going. She has 20,000 tickets to sell across her theatres each week, and many of those people will go for a drink or a meal before or after the show. The overheads to keep the show closed are costly, but now, “we can take people off furlough, pay them through the payrolls. That saves the government money, saves taxpayers money, and gets everyone back to work. We can be better off open than when we were closed – so what’s not to like about that? I’ll have to wait to make profits later, when we can open up properly.” The show can only break even at 50% capacity, and even that is only possible thanks to money from the Cultural Recovery Grant. Anxiety is emerging that the Indian variant could delay the end of social distancing on June 21, but the production can adapt at short notice – the missing seats will be put back in overnight, as soon as the government gives the nod.
For Rabheru, not going to work has meant not being able to express himself. He tells me he went home, got into gardening and had a much-needed break. There were highs and lows - he suffered a close bereavement, but he also met his partner. Thomas was able to finish drama school (on Zoom, of course), sign with an agent and read some scripts, while Elchikhe set up an online web series to stream performances from musicals. They were aware that the nature of “inviting strangers into our house” made it a harder environment to control than a TV set, but there was still a frustrating sense that theatre had been left behind. “We understood the difficulty but we said we were willing to take those measures. And we ended up being a bit ignored and left to the end in every sense of reopening and financial support,” says Thomas. But he believes that a big moment like this brings about a shift, “a sort of mini-revolution, and the art becomes something else.”
Being the first show back in the West End is a real moment – “it’s such a honour,” says Elchikhe. “This is the most diverse and representative show that’s on in the West End right now, and after the year we’ve had, I feel like it’s so important to reflect that. There’s something in it for everyone, and everyone can see themselves in this show. We’re flying the flag for the other shows that can’t come back yet – we’ve got the responsibility to be ambassadors for them. So it feels exciting to be able to represent our fellow actors and stage management and crew, everyone that it takes to make theatre.”
Tonight, before the curtain goes up, Elchikhe and Thomas will take a moment to soak it in – they know it will be an emotional and potentially overwhelming evening. Rabheru will do the obligatory Instagram post (obvs) and have a celebratory drink. “I’m going to go to every single theatre. I might just have a celebratory glass of champagne at each one of them – socially distanced with myself, of course,” laughs Burns. “I think everyone who loves theatre in London should raise a glass at half past seven and go ‘hooray! The theatres are open!’”
And does she feel confident that, after the way the industry has been ravaged this past year, she can still find the next Everybody’s Talking About Jamie? Absolutely. This summer she’s launching the Rising Stars Festival, with 23 producers getting their first opportunity in the West End, and a range of new shows on offer from drag queen extravaganzas to Cruise, a debut play about the Aids crisis. “I think we’re quite modest about how great our theatre is in the UK. But the truth is… we are very, very good. Britain is a very creative nation. And we should bang our drum and be proud to say that.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie reopens at the Apollo Theatre on May 20; everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk