There are two Jamies. One’s the lead character in a new British musical (THE new British musical) that’s successfully got everyone talking. On its trajectory from Sheffield Crucible theatre to the West End, it’s landed multiple five star reviews, and has inspired wildly positive testimonies to its loving, inclusive, message of acceptance.
The other Jamie is a real person. He’s now 22, living in London, studying fashion, with a newly refined bowl cut and a new set of ambitions in life (although he still performs as his drag alter ego, Fifi La True). But at the age of sixteen, he wrote to several television production companies inviting them to follow him as he prepared to attend prom in a dress.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie cleaves tightly to the trajectory of the resulting documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 (you can watch clips here). The setting is there: a small Northern town, red brick terraces, teenagers outgrowing their school uniforms, the lure of the regional drag scene. Most of all, it memorialises the teenage Jamie, to a degree that’s almost uncanny – its star John McCrea is his mirror image, with the same lanky, long legs, peroxide blonde hair and awkward, oddly touching coquettishness.
He’s out to his classmates, but only halfway. The story opens in a school careers session, where Jamie’s bully openly teases him for being a ‘fairy’. Jamie’s responses make him the person we all wish we could be, in hindsight: ready to say ‘yes I’m gay’ with an acid comeback that prompts a frown of befuddlement. Still, he’s not quite ready to tell the class that he wants to be a drag queen when he grows up. He settles, weakly, for ‘performer’.
In a series of scenes that flit between school and a kitchen reigned over by his warm, supportive mum, he makes his first Bambi-like steps into the world of drag. His unapologetic mission to be out and proud makes him vulnerable – but he’s also surrounded by a dauntless coterie of women who offer a constant backdrop of support, sympathy, and advice. His mother Margaret spends her small wages on high heels and a dress for him. Her friend Ray (Mina Anwar) supplies fiery, salty pep talks. His best friend Pritti is constantly distracted from her revision, and dreams of being a doctor, by the emotional support he seeks.
It takes a village to raise a child, and Jamie’s drag persona is cossetted and nurtured into life by a whole matriarchal hamlet. But these womens’ emotional labour is left unquestioned, and their lives outside him are a blur. Coming out can be a selfish process, and part of me spent the play waiting for Jamie to be forced to grow up, to be shifted from the centre of his universe.
Still, if Pritti and Margaret are left as doting supporting players, they are given some of the best songs. Played with gentle vulnerability by Josie Walker, Margaret unleashes a duo of jaw-dropping solos, not least ‘He’s My Boy’. And how rare and welcome it is to see multiple, realistic hijab-wearing characters on stage: Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse) is as endearingly earnest and outspoken as her classmate Fatimah is frivolous. They’re swept up in group dance numbers that feel Matilda-inspired in their desk-hopping agility. And they’re infectious, too. Dan Gillespie Sells’s score is stuffed full of genuinely catchy songs, matched by Tom Macrae’s sly, witty lyrics.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has been billed as ‘The new Billy Elliot’ for obvious reasons, success-as-British-musical aside. Still, if it’s got the boy in the dress, it doesn’t have the simmering tension of a community in turmoil. The ex-mining town Jamie lives in is a backdrop to his decidedly low-stakes story, not a complex world with problems of its own.
The story might be closely focused on Jamie, but MacRae’s book never really puts this boy under the microscope. Perhaps the most interesting part of his coming out is the fact he masterminded it like a reality TV show maestro. How many 16-year-olds can pitch their prom plans to multiple production companies? In a Stage interview with him, Jamie Campbell explains that Firecracker productions got back to him and “said that it was a very well written pitch, like a film script”.
This knowingness is intriguing – it suggests that Jamie is aware that while he’s bending out of the shape his small town wants him to be, he’s conforming into another mould, one that’s both lionised and dissected by mass media. But the creators of this musical have left out the whole ‘inviting a film crew’ part of Jamie’s story. Instead, they’ve carefully re-situated it in the wholesome never never land of British musical theatre, where the internet doesn’t exist.
It’s misleading to view any present day century coming out story (and particularly this one) without the context of online culture. The real Jamie was inspired by online make-up videos posted by drag queens. He can’t have been unaware of LGBT positive movements like #itgetsbetter, created by gay adults reaching out to the confused teenagers they once were. Nor of the instagram drag stars or the tumblr emotional outpourings or the online communities built around the (briefly name-checked joys) of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s this whole rich world, as much as anything, that’s transformed teenagers’ attitudes. For huge numbers of kids (although not all of them, not everywhere) being gay or queer is cool.
This is something that’s showcased in the story of the real Jamie. When he makes his debut in the documentary, boys from his school whoop along, and one says “He is a good looking woman, I’d go for him”. “Yeah I’d go for him,” chimes in his mate – and they all pose for pics with him afterwards. In the musical, he’s cornered by a bully at the stage door, and is beaten by three men in the street in an uncontextualised homophobic attack.
The dangers of homophobic violence are, obviously, still real and present. Who knows how Jamie’s schoolmates responded when the cameras weren’t rolling? Still, it feels like the musical risks emphasising metropolitan stereotypes about the narrow-mindedness of working class, small-town men, rather than showing a world at a moment of a youth-led cultural shift towards acceptance. Similarly, Jamie’s cabaret star mentor’s pronouncement that “A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at. A drag queen is something to be feared” feels a bit dated, in an era where everyone, especially young people, is becoming more literate in ideas of trans identity and gender fluidity.
Together, these moments situate Jamie’s 21st century coming out story back in the past. To times that gay audiences in their 30s, 40s and 50s will find painfully familiar, and to scenes of violence that will hit home. Only this Jamie is fighting back, dazzling his foes and coming out sparkling. It’s a wish-fulfilment narrative that’s hugely seductive, and single-minded – centring a lone person’s achievements, but losing the richness of the community we don’t quite see.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is on until 21 April 2018 at the Apollo Theatre. Click here for more details.