Before I put together this review of the musical which started in Sheffield and which now has a new life in the West End, I tracked down the original documentary on which it is based – Jamie: a drag queen at 16 – and watched the basic story of how gay teenager Jamie Campbell was supported by his mother, family friend Lee, best friend Sam(antha), and drag queen Simon to achieve his dream of having a drag show and of taking that character to the school prom.
Jamie Campbell and John McCrea, photo by James Stewart.
Three years in the making, the musical version takes Jamie (now with the surname New) and his mother Margaret, and the basic plot, as jumping-off points to present a narrative filled with pulsating dance beats, big ballads, and racially diverse characters (Lee, a white woman, is now Ray, an Asian woman, and Sam has become the hijab-wearing Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse, who gives what could be a stereotypical character an interesting slant)).
After watching the documentary it feels a bit of a shame that stage Jamie’s final prom dress is so understated, and you only ever see the famous make-up from the posters just once, as ‘Mimi Me’ struts her stuff on the Legs Eleven stage.
John McCrea (who I saw last some years ago in The Sound of Music as the eldest Von Trapp boy) totally convinces as the teen who is working through both confusion and confidence, and when his doting mum purchases a dazzling pair of red high heels for his birthday, he walks in them as if he’s been wearing them all his life.
The big production numbers are all set in the schoolroom (‘And You Don’t Even Know It’; ‘Work of Art’; ‘Out of the Darkness’), while the slower songs – Jamie’s ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘Ugly in This Ugly World’; and Margaret’s ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’ are in the home or elsewhere (maybe in a single spotlight).
John McCrea and Lucie Shorthouse
At the performance I saw, Rebecca McKinnis was on as Margaret, and both her acting and singing were superb. I also enjoyed the lovely and understated performance of Phil Nichol as Hugo/Lolo Chanelle and the ‘out there’ shenanigans of real-life drag queens Alex Anstey and Daniel Jacobs, who perform as Vileda Moppe and Vinegar Strokes respectively out there, and as Laika Virgin and Sandra Bollock here; they are joined by James Gillan, a former Marilyn in the Boy George musical Taboo, and who doesn’t feel out of place.
This is a truly life-affirming musical, with memorable tunes and lyrics by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, and if it is a little corny, and extremely camp, it doesn’t care. I would have snipped out the bigoted dad, and toned down the pantomime queen teacher, and made Jamie really put himself out there, but these are small quibbles.
The musical is about the importance of being yourself rather than hiding behind what others might want you to be, and that message comes out loud and clear, with the audience accomplices in the claps, cheers and whoops that the cast, the fabulous band, and the book (both funny and tragic) deserve.