Peter Ormerod reviews Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
Everybody may be talking about Jamie - but his mum is just as much of a star as he is.
That this show has been such a hit should come as no surprise. It's packed with appealing songs, exudes energy and is staged with a blend of edge and polish. It also proclaims the necessity for us to be true to our (best) selves - and to let others be true to theirs. And it depicts one of the most affecting relationships between mother and son to be found in modern theatre.
The show tells the story of Jamie New, a teenage boy constrained by the conventions of school and life in Sheffield. He's gay, with a sense of flair, drama and wit that set him apart. His best friend is a Muslim girl named Pritti. In terms of demeanour, the two could hardly be more different: she loves study and hopes to become a doctor; he is something of a fashionista and dreams of being a drag queen. But their shared sense of difference makes them inseparable.
Jamie's pursuit of his ambition draws him into a world of great excitement but grave danger. His drag name is Mimi Me, but he is no narcissist, and the musical is as much a story about our dependence on others as it is a celebration of self-will.
Layton Williams will justly take the bulk of the plaudits as Jamie, whose sass, verve and defiance never fully mask his vulnerability. His singing voice may lack a bit of heft in the lower register but otherwise cuts through powerfully. Yet in her own way, Melissa Jacques as his mother, Margaret, is just as impressive. There is a beauty in her unshowiness and steadiness, her love for her son plainly rock-solid; it is a performance of glorious dignity and devotion. He's My Boy, her big number, is arguably the show's greatest moment, a soulful torch song that swells to the point of emotional explosion; Jacques pours her heart into every beat. Rita Simons, known to millions as EastEnder Roxy Mitchell, plays Jamie's teacher Miss Hedge; she attacks the role with great vigour and proves herself a versatile performer.
Designer Anna Fleischle's staging is slick and sleek, its rectilinear modernism contrasting with the theatre's gilded opulence, its inventive use of props, lighting and projection recalling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Composer Dan Gillespie Sells may be best known as the frontman of The Feeling but his work is arguably even more at home in the theatre than the charts, its unaffected, unironic melodicism a natural fit for this form. Some songs here feel a little mechanical, perhaps more like technical exercises than expressions of the soul; but he knows how to get audiences swaying and clapping, and there are a fair few moments of depth and power. The book and lyrics are by Northampton-born Tom Macrae; his script fizzes and crackles impressively, displaying a way with witticisms, put-downs and rejoinders that frequently get the audience not only laughing but cheering and applauding. It's all held together by Jonathan Butterell's sharp direction and enlivened by Kate Prince's snappy choreography. And while some of the Sheffield accents drop in and out, praise is due for the singing, which steers well clear of the homogenised and vaguely antiseptic style beloved of many reality TV shows, carrying instead a good deal of grit and earthiness.
The musical this week celebrated its second anniversary in the West End, and its achievement should be cherished by anyone whose world does not revolve around London. It is based on the true story of a boy from County Durham, and received its premiere in Sheffield before moving to Shaftesbury Avenue. It owes its existence to what some in the capital patronisingly call 'the regions'. By the end, everyone in the theatre was on their feet, moved and invigorated and perhaps even inspired. The story is one that we can all get behind - as is the success of the show itself.
* Visit www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/book-tickets to book.