If you crossed the musicals Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot you would probably end up with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. It’s set in Yorkshire; at the centre is a boy with career hopes that many a northern male would consider distinctly unmasculine, and for which footwear is key — in the case of 16-year-old Jamie, sky high heels.
If this new show is a fraction as successful as those forebears it could keep Sheffield Theatres, where it started life and ran for just 19 performances before it arrived in the West End, in clover for years. Yet it would be wrong to think that there is a calculating, commercial hand behind this show. Granted, its lead producer in London is Nica Burns, one of the biggest names in theatre. But the show originated when director Jonathan Butterell saw a TV documentary about a 16-year-old schoolboy who wore a dress to his school’s prom. Butterell took the story to composer Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyric writer Tom MacRae, who moved the setting from County Durham to Sheffield.
The result is both heartwarming and witty. And whatever the show’s future it announces some major new talent. Most conspicuous is John McCrea, who has been with the show from the start and, as the eponymous Jamie, lights up the West End stage with a rare combination of vulnerability and charisma. He also looks amazing. Tall, fair and with an alabaster complexion, on paper at least you might wonder about the political correctness of making a blonde bombshell the hero of a show that is set largely in the multicultural classroom of an inner city school.
But McCrea’s Jamie wears his beauty with a self-deprecating wit. It’s a performance of poise, (camp) pose and, crucially, where you might expect arrogance, there is tenderness.
And if the story is over-familiar — Jamie’s dad is an alpha-male homophobe, bigotry is overcome and tolerance prevails — Sells and MacRae have written some lyrically and melodically inventive songs.
The solo number He’s My Boy, sung with emotional depth and power by Josie Walker as Jamie’s single parent mother, is genuinely moving on a well-worn theme — a mother’s unconditional love. And the title number is sung by Jamie’s classmates with an infectious verve. There’s also some excellent support from Lucie Shorthouse as Jamie’s hijab-wearing best friend Pritti who combines Muslim conservatism and a tolerance for Jamie’s sexuality in a way that is enjoyably uncomplicated.
But the star in the story — and the show — is McCrea’s Jamie, whose presence on stage is like a human beam of light.