Review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre)
The musical makes a triumphant return to the West End
I remember going to the opening night of Everbody's Talking About Jamie in 2017 – watching a young whippersnapper musical birthed in Sheffield, based on a larger-than-life tale about a 16 year-old drag aspirant with tunes by a popstar turning his talents to the stage (Dan Gillespie-Sells) warm the cockles of the capital's audiences. It opened with a dopamine blast of novelty – a homegrown show that spoke to the "now", with lyrics as sharp as Kate Prince's dazzling choreography.
Back then, very few (though one of their number is probably producer Nica Burns) could have imagined the sensation the show has become: a North American premiere is set for next year, it had a recent run in South Korea, while a starry UK tour will recommence after the summer. A big-screen version, originally set to be released last autumn, will arrive on Amazon Prime in September, with a cast including Richard E Grant.
The show felt pretty dapper in 2017 – a feel-good whirligig that embraces ideas of identity, expression, inclusivity and the cauldron that is teenage emotional angst. What's a complete privilege to report is that, through tweaks, book alterations and a fun dose of Covid-related comedy, the show, coming up on four years in London, has never looked better.
A lot of that is down to writer Tom McCrea (who also worked on the film) coming back into rehearsals to adjust bits, giving it lashes of pandemic-related wit. Endearingly dubbed the "limited edition Covid special", this tweaked version of the show features a healthy (but never overbearing) bout of skits about mask wearing, temperature checking and social distancing. Jokes about the impossibility of dating during a pandemic go down well in the auditorium. While some are obviously going to the theatre for relief from the harsh reality of the pandemic, it's also nice to see characters on stage having to overcome the same consequences of restrictions, distancing and isolation. Avoidance of present-day circumstance isn't a prerequisite of escapism.
It's helped enormously by a cast firing on more cylinders than the 1000th performance glitter cannons. Noah Thomas, who made his West End debut in the lead role of Jamie New early last year, has now eased into the part with an erstwhile gusto. He's helped no end by Hiba Elchikhe as Jamie's best friend Pritti, delivering an assured performance throughout a variety of numbers. Shane Richie returns to the musical as faded drag star Loco Chanelle, his performance an even split of worn, haggard faux-cynicism and blithesome extravagance. While that might sound paradoxical, somehow he makes it work. The true tearaway turn comes from Melissa Jacques as Jamie's mum Margaret. Jacques understudied the role for over a year before getting her moment in the spotlight and, by jove, she truly owns it.
Now, on the eve of its silver screen arrival and a re-embarkation on a UK tour, the story of Jamie New has never shone brighter. There's no two ways about it – Burns, everyone at Nimax (including the stalwart front of house crew ready and willing to welcome us back with big smiles, comprehensive guidance and an infinite well of patience), the cast and the backstage team have moved mountains to get audiences sat safely back on Shaftesbury Avenue.
In a time when lots of producers are plumbing for safe, sedate two-handers, to re-stage your mammoth ensemble musical is no easy feat. But Burns isn't staging shows because they're easy – but because she knows that's what people need.