Jamie New is not just a boy in a dress, says his mentor Hugo AKA Loco Chanelle, the self-professed biggest drag star of all time, and this hit musical is not just about a boy wanting to wear a dress to the high school prom. Returning to Brighton after a run in 2021, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie revisits this musical version of a true story with a stunning new production.
Opening with the last careers lesson before the class leaves school, the group number instantly sets the scene: we know who these kids are, we went to school with most of them. Plus being inside Jamie’s colourful mind as he daydreams is an excellent introduction to him as the main character, especially as it includes the teacher Miss Hedge, played with uptight and contained feistiness by Hayley Tamaddon, standing on a desk rapping. Although how a computer could have suggested Jamie’s career as a forklift truck driver is perhaps beyond the wildest programming imaginable.
A show like this lives or dies by the lead and what works so well about this tour is Ivano Turco’s performance in this titular role. He holds the whole show with a gentleness and vulnerability which is a breath of fresh air and affects everything. This gives a beautiful story arc to Jamie’s uncertainty, innocence and lack of confidence and lands this musical in the realm of refreshing realism: “keeping it real” as his teacher says. Most of the classmates are based on archetypes, capturing the flavours of high school life, yet they’re pleasingly rounded, making each of them much more real as a result. The bully Dean, who gets really quite vile, is played with fullness by Jordan Ricketts, and has a surprising, funny, yet extremely satisfying conclusion.
The choreography by Kate Prince is simply stunning: everyone is in sync, there are substantial and detailed tutting sections, plus a breathtaking contemporary lyrical dance with gorgeous storytelling to accompany ‘If I Met Myself Again’. It’s sung with regretful yet accepting emotion by Rebecca McKinnis as mum Margaret New, as she reviews her life and her path to where she is. As well as the shapes they throw in the dances and the resulting pictures being a feast for the eyes, the group numbers are so joyful and catchy it’s easy to find yourself singing along to them.
For the most part the numbers are solo, and there are some standout lyrics with truly beautiful performances: John Partridge’s powerfully vocalised dark and funny ‘The Legend Of Loco Chanelle’ as Hugo; Talia Palamathanan’s sensitive, sweet and uplifting ‘It Means Beautiful’ as Pritti; and topped by Rebecca McKinnis’ showstopping and heartbreaking ‘He’s My Boy’ with real tears as Jamie’s mum, echoed through the audience responses. Another wonderful surprise is Ivano Turco’s range in terms of both pitch and performance: he has the voice of a pop star, not just a musical theatre singer, with touches reminiscent of a young Terence Trent D’Arby.
This is a very special show with sky-high production values, excellent choreography and songs, rounded performances and a great story which is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell – who aspired to be a drag queen and wanted to go to his prom in a dress. This tour is mature: the acting is layered, detailed and truthful. It’s an inspiring and uplifting story of overcoming not only external prejudice and expectations but internalised shame from ignorant bullies who can cause so much damage, especially so for a parent to someone who is a little different.
The character of Pritti Pasha has some cracking lines, telling Jamie he’s not stupid but his brain is just “the wrong shape for school”; and the best advice from a best friend at school: “Stop waiting for permission to be you”, which we perhaps all need to hear, all through our lives. A well deserved full standing ovation from the audience at the end was the final comment on a totally fabulous show.
Theatre Royal Brighton, Tuesday 31st October 2023
Photos by Matt Crockett