Queen of the night

Rating: 4

by Richard Barber 

And I’m not surprised. Here’s a brand new, breezy musical, hatched at the crucible in Sheffield and now shamelessly high-kicking it down Shaftesbury Avenue. What’s more, it’s based on a true story.

Jamie Campbell lived in a small former mining village in county Durham. Psychometric tests at his comprehensive predicted he ought to try his hand as a forklift driver or a prison guard when he left school – both a bit wide of the mark, as it turned out. Because there was nothing more in this world that 16-year-old Jamie wanted to be than a drag queen.

His surname has been changed to New for the purposes of this musical, and the action has been shifted to Sheffield. But otherwise, the story tells it like it was. And the fact is, Jamie was never in the closet. From the moment we see him with his peroxide hair and his endless legs wrapped around his school desk, it’s clear that he’s been ‘out’ ever since trying on his mother’s dresses while still in single figures.

In truth, that’s the production’s one weakness. It means that, apart from the occasional ribbing he receives at the hands of Dean (Luke Baker), the handsome school bully, and the rejection by his bigoted father (Ken Christiansen), Jamie never really embarks on the dreaded journey. Not only is everybody talking about him, but everybody loves him! And none more so than his mum, Margaret, her best friend Ray (a spirited Mina Anwar) and his swotty Muslim classmate Pritti (a sweet-voiced Lucie Shorthouse). Josie Walker as Margaret gives the most nuanced performance of the evening – funny, tender, heartbreaking – and is rewarded with the two best songs, If I Met Myself Again and He’s My Boy, more or less guaranteed to reduce you to a puddle

But much rests, of course, on who plays Jamie, virtually on stage throughout. Director Jonathan Butterell lucked out when he cast John Mccrea, here making his West End debut and managing to avoid all the elephant traps of accurately embodying a screaming queen. I liked the slick, spare staging, Kate Prince’s lively choreography, Dan Gillespie Sells’ music and Tom MacRae’s lyrics (although not always as audibly pin-sharp as they might be). And the first half would profit from dropping a couple of the songs to speed up the action. But how refreshing to come across such verve, such energy. And British, to boot!

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 until 21 April: 0330-333 4809, www.nimaxtheatres.com