REVIEW: Everybody's Talking About Jamie - Concept Album

Recording CoverIf you were lucky enough, as I was, to see Sheffield Crucible’s world premiere production of Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae’s glorious new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie a couple of months ago, you’ve probably had ‘Don’t Even Know It’, the show’s infuriatingly catchy opening number, bouncing around in your head ever since. If you weren’t, just wait. If there’s any justice – in showbusiness there often isn’t, but never mind – this show will have a long, long life. You may not have heard it yet, but you will.

Based very loosely on a BBC Three documentary called 'Jamie: Drag Queen at 16', on one level this is simply another show about a kid who wants to succeed in show business – but specifically, in this instance, to be a drag queen. What makes the show so refreshing, apart from the wonderful score, is that it offers a thoroughly joyous, celebratory take on its subject. At the start of the show, Jamie is out and proud, with a supportive mother and a network of friends. It’s probably fair to suggest that MacRae’s sharp, funny book at least somewhat glosses over the difficulties Jamie has to overcome in order to a) take his first tentative steps towards becoming a professional drag performer and b) attend his school prom in a prom dress rather than a dinner jacket, but to go too deeply into the ripples around Jamie’s rejection by his homophobic father would have resulted in a very different kind of show, and perhaps, right now, celebrating tolerance and diversity is a more interesting dramatic choice than emphasising difference and rejection.

And this concept album, released to coincide with the production in Sheffield and available via iTunes, is tremendously entertaining, although it doesn’t always quite reflect the way the songs sound in the theatre. Sung mostly by Sells himself, with guest appearances from cast members John McCrea and Josie Walker and pop singers Sophie Ellis Bextor and Betty Boo, it reveals a very, very strong collection of songs. This is as good a debut score as I’ve heard in a long time.

Sells, happily, has a terrific pop voice and makes an excellent case for his own material. If he can’t quite nail the camp hauteur necessary for the origin-of-a-drag-queen epic ‘The Legend of Miss Loco Chanel’, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable performance, and he offers a powerfully urgent reading of Jamie’s big Act One I Want song, ‘Wall In My Head’. Bextor gives a fine, precise rendition of ‘Work of Art’; it’s enjoyable enough, but out of context the song loses most of its venom. Betty Boo, unfortunately, more or less fades into the background.

As for McCrea and Walker, they’re simply superb. Walker gets to (re)create her two big solos, ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’; they’re both far better songs than you’d guess from the wince-inducingly trite titles, and she’s just as wonderful here as she was in the theatre. It’s a pity McCrea doesn’t have more to do on the album, but his duet with Walker, ‘My Man, Your Boy’, gives a taste of what a fine performance he gave.

If I’ve any complaint at all, it’s simply (and somewhat unreasonably) that this is not a cast album: the original cast were so good that it’s a great pity their performances have (mostly) not been preserved. And inevitably, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll notice certain things missing: the finale and the lengthy prom sequence that conclude the show are not included here, which means the album somewhat gives the impression that the second act is dominated by slightly maudlin ballads, which couldn’t be further from the truth. And some of these songs are undeniably richer when they’re performed in context. ‘It Means Beautiful’, in particular, is lovely, but in the theatre it’s sung by a teenage Muslim girl about her choice to wear a hijab, and it’s a more moving moment than you’d guess from the version of the song you hear on this recording.

What matters most, though, is simply that this is a marvellous collection of songs, and a score that deserves to be heard - and these days, in a new British musical, that’s more unusual than it should be. Yes, you’ll walk away humming ‘Don’t Even Know It’, but don’t be surprised if you can’t get the title song and ‘At 16’ out of your head either. Despite a scattering of good reviews in the national press, shows like this can easily slip under the radar, and Sells and MacRae’s score is simply too good to be produced once and then disappear. It’s unusual (although not unprecedented) for a musical produced in a regional theatre in the UK to put out any kind of recording at all (what I wouldn’t give for a cast album of the Crucible’s stunning ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ from last year); let’s hope this album helps bring the show to a wider audience.


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