Review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre)

Dan Gillespie Sells’ new musical about a teenager who wants to be a drag queen gets a West End transfer

Exuberant, exhilarating, exciting, enchanting: Everybody's Talking About Jamie and it turns out they absolutely should be. This new musical from the lead singer of The Feeling Dan Gillespie Sells and writer Tom MacRae is an ebullient tale of our times, a story about becoming who you want to be with a whole load of British grit thrown in.

The show is inspired by the BBC 3 documentary about the real-life County Durham-based Jamie Campbell who decided, at age 16, he wanted to be a drag queen. Jamie, his mum and their tale are again placed centre stage, this time with added fictionalised flourishes, moulded into an upbeat, layered, coming-of-age story that will resonate with anyone who has ever wondered what on earth they should do with their life.

Jamie and his classmates are facing the end of school and their career prospects are not good. The computer thinks Jamie should be a forklift truck driver, while his best friend Pritti Pasha might make it to be a vet (even though she’s set on being a doctor). But Jamie’s secret is that he’s spent his childhood dressing up in his mum’s clothes and he wants to turn that pastime into a job. Facing pressures from school bullies, angry teachers and a mainly absent, always awful father, Jamie, his supportive mum Margaret always by his side, struggles to find his way. But find it he absolutely does.

It’s not a perfect musical, with perhaps a track too many and the first half taking a little time to get where it needs to be. But MacRae’s book and lyrics tell the tale in such a scrappy, honest, hilarious way that the whole thing has delightful punch. There’s swearing, selfies, rapping and pop-culture references galore – complete with some zinging one-liners – and as a result it feels as British as they come.

And though they may be more pop than musical theatre, when they work Gillespie Sells’ songs are a total treat. The first number "And You Don’t Even Know It" ripples with sass – much like the protagonist himself – while the title track is a funky ear worm, guaranteed to be as at home on your playlist as it is on this stage. The slower ballads don’t fare as well, but when the magnificent Josie Walker as Margaret sings "He’s My Boy", it echoes a little of the truth and rawness of Willy Russell's masterpiece Blood Brothers. There are songs in this show which will make you weep. The tunes entirely come into their own in the second half, which soars.

Director Jonathan Butterell’s chief achievement is to gather together a high-energy, tight ensemble and let them rip into the satisfying songs with the help of choreographer Kate Prince’s attitude-heavy movement. The grey, box-tower set occasionally feels clunky – the slightly jarring projections get a little lost within it all. But with the cast b-boying at the front of the stage, it really doesn't matter what's going on at the back: all eyes, as they should be, are on Jamie and his friends.

This is a dynamic, deliciously entertaining night out, a glorious tribute to what makes us human and a heart-warming appeal for acceptance. Let's all keep talking about Jamie for as long as possible.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie is currently booking at the Apollo Theatre until 21 April 2018.