Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Everybody's Talking About Jamie … though his allies deserve to be in the spotlight (Grand Opera House until Saturday 12 March)

It’s now more than a decade since BBC Three broadcast the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. At the time of writing, it’s still available to watch on iPlayer. It follows an English school boy who wants to be a drag queen and decides to go to his prom in a dress.

His estranged Dad, never seen on camera, is not supportive of the son’s choices, but his Mum and a close friend stand with him. It’s an uncomfortable documentary in places, there’s a sense – maybe false – that some dramatic situations and opportunities were created for the camera to capture. But there is an appreciation of confidence being found and identity being formed.

The musical version fictionalises Jamie’s story, changing his surname, adding a school bully, bringing in scenes with his bigoted Dad, and switches the central best friend to be a Muslim girl with a Hindi name, creating a duo that is othered and can dramatically mirror each other. The film version of the musical (available on Amazon Prime) is nearly pitch perfect in its casting (Sharon Horgan, Richard E. Grant, Sarah Lancashire, Max Harwood), in how it relays the story and the flashbacks, and in its shameless pulling of the emotional heartstrings that are there for the plucking.

The UK tour of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie (music by Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae) sashays onto the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast this week. Updates to the script throw in some light pandemic jokes. Layton Williams plays sometimes reticent, sometimes exuberant, always a little bit repressed Jamie New. Williams’ vocal range, physique, dance moves, attitude, not to mention his confidence in heels, carries off the demanding role.

The homophobic bullying by a classmate (Dean, played by George Sampson) is very quickly stood up to, teaching the audience a pattern of disempowering the words of those who seek to ridicule and oppress. But it’s the characters who surround Jamie, pushing him on and catching his arm when he wobbles that really caught my eye.

“Stop waiting for permission to be you”

Best friend Pritti (Sharan Phull) is loyal, loving, and a great confidant. She asks difficult questions but creates a safe space in which Jamie can answer. Pretti pushes him to stop viewing her as a stereotype but instead as a whole person with complexity and rationale for how she behaves and dresses. Phull’s rendition of It Means Beautiful is one of the standout moments in the second act. Everyone should have a Pritti in their lives.

Family friend Ray (Sasha Latoya) is another ally who pushes Jamie to understand those around him, a critical friend he badly needs. (She also makes a great crisp sandwich after the interval!)

“The woman in the shop said your daughter has big feet. I said, they’re for my son.”

Jamie’s Mum Margaret (Amy Ellen Richardson) is not unthinkingly supportive. In private she has the concerns of a loving parent, wondering what is best for her child, and wanting to minimise the chance of pain. He’s My Boy expresses that inner turmoil, while her final lines in My Man, Your Boy wrap her vocal arms around her treasured son. Richardson gets some of the most powerful songs – If I Met Myself Again (with an emotive dance to one side of the stage), and He’s My Boy – and her commanding vocals easily compensate for the production’s somewhat vacant staging.

It was heart-warming to see Williams bring Richardson centre stage during the curtain call, and later delay her exit from the stage to bring her more applause and his own show of affection.

Along with Shane Ritchie (who plays Hugo/Loco Chanelle with pizzazz, great poise, and steaming vocals), Margaret, Ray and Pritti are perhaps the role models that everyone should be talking about. People who tread carefully, choosing not to say no in an instant without thinking, embracing nonconformity without fear, and acting as encouragers, sometimes gently, sometimes directly. The power of this musical isn’t really just about one lad’s decision to be himself. It’s about the community who gathered around and walked with him.

Lucy Carter’s low-level lighting together with Anna Fleischle’s set with the six piece band perched up on the school’s top floor, a fantastic fold out kitchen that’s straight out of a children’s toy, and great surfaces for monotone video projections serve the performances without distraction.

There are some odd moments in the production when the lack of props combines with quite static choreography. Jamie’s movements in his early song The Wall in My Head labours the “my feet stuck to the floor” over any sense of “climbing and climbing”.

I know there’s a terribly irony to this next observation, but the speed of the dialogue delivered in sometimes dense northern English accents meant that some audience members in Belfast clearly missed key lines and retorts. (The row behind me had a whole conversation over not hearing the word “mosque” at one point. Though later they made comprehension tough for everyone as they started to eat individually wrapped sweets, each one sounding like a crisp packet being opened …)

On Tuesday night I felt resigned to sit in row K and blub my way through the second act: it seemed inevitable. The characters and the plot are so well designed to generate a response. However, the film demonstrates a much better emotional control than the older stage version. In the end, the strongest moment of the performance came not from the characters, but when the cast members’ respect for each other blasted through the high-energy curtain call and the encore. And then Jamie’s final stanza “In this place where we belong (pause) Belfast” hung in the air, unresolved, in a city that can be both affirming and rejecting.

Everyone’s Talking About Jamie continues its run at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 12 March, with 2-for-1 tickets available over the phone until Thursday. 

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