“Shoot first or they’ll shoot you down”, the first rule of drag according to this production’s queen Loco Chanelle (RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 Winner Bianca Del Rio/Roy Haylock) and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie certainly comes loaded and trigger-happy. Parking itself at the Theatre Royal Brighton for the Christmas slot, the musical promises plenty of panto-scale sparkle that leaves you, if not quite festive, certainly feeling free, fierce and full of feelgood cheer!
Jamie New (Layton Williams) spends his schooldays dreaming of becoming a drag queen. Uncertain of the future and his place within it he looks to craft an identity of his own and, with the help of those who want to support and in the face of those want to supplant, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery – stepping out of the darkness and into the spotlight…
There is no denying it, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a lot of fun. A catchy, pop-infused score flows beneath a rags-to-richesse story as school-time daydreams become reality and the classroom opens out into the colourful, kaleidoscopic world of drag. The score packs a lot of killer rivalled, unfortunately, by plenty of well-intentioned filler. The script, likewise, seems like a draft away from final with the dialogue routinely exposition-heavy but bolstered by some wry and wicked one-liners (Shobna Gulati as Ray having the lion’s share of these and deftly firing off each and every one of them into the auditorium with aplomb). But the action flows and the ensemble welcome the audience into the narrative, taking us with them as they dance us from terraced streets through nightclubs and classrooms.
The story of real-life Jamie Campbell is stirring and inspiring. Wanting to attend his school prom in a dress he was beleaguered and harassed by critics and adversarial bigots. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is an unevenly pitched re-imagining of those events and is perhaps occasionally guilty of building soaring moments of triumph (with accompanying ballads) in the face of some relatively two-dimensional “villainy”. The prejudice and bigotry on display is real and unfortunately all too recognisable, but seems to have been included almost as an afterthought within the production’s development, lacking any well-roundedness of character, nuance or motive. This threatens to cheapen those moments when Jamie does, in the face of all odds, surmount the tide, “the wall in my head”, that looms large around every corner. Perhaps the intention is not to dwell on the negative, to not give the detractors too much focus or stage-time, but this cuts the stakes and does an injustice to those real individuals at the heart of the story.
It cannot be denied though that the show is the perfect vehicle for the title role to shine and Layton Williams does exactly that. Williams has the audience around his finger from the first number, his comic-timing is excellent but it is in the production’s quieter points that he truly excels, lending gravity to those softer moments behind the glitter and sparkle. He makes the role his own whilst never forgetting that this is a real story with real people and real struggles at its heart. Likewise, Amy Ellen Richardson as Jamie’s mother Margaret and an excellent George Sampson as school bully Dean delicately guide the show’s undercurrent, their grounding tethering the show to its source and allowing the rest to play out across an intricate and creatively malleable set (designed by Anna Fleischle), always assured in its footing.
Ultimately Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is an important show about both self and social acceptance as well as a tribute to those trailblazers who light the way, the giants upon whose shoulders the next generation will stand. Elevated by standout performances (and one in particular) it is let down by a somewhat underdeveloped “proto-score” and a script that could do with being revisited, rounding off the edges and grounding them seamlessly into the narrative. But cast and company have created an enjoyable and at times effervescent piece, never afraid to shoot first, that pitches the perfect energy to high-kickstart the new year.
Theatre Royal Brighton, Tuesday 14th December 2021