In 2011, a BBC camera crew followed Jamie Campbell, a secondary school student gearing up for prom – and determined to come dressed as his drag alter ego, Fifi la True. Despite dressing up since the age of six, he still ran into issues over the plan: girls wore cocktail dresses, boys wore black tie. What was the dress code for Fifi la True?
Five years later, the resulting documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 inspired a musical that became a runaway cult hit. Dan Gillespie-Sells, singer-songwriter of The Feeling, fictionalised Jamie’s story by upping the ante, relocating it to Sheffield and infusing it with wave after wave of fizzy, upbeat electro pop. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells the story of one boy’s battle against local bullies, bigots and small-minded school boards as he finds a community to call his own: Sheffield’s bustling underground drag scene.
But a show that initially seems to be a classic heartwarmer – the social outsider who overcomes the odds to take ownership of their own identity – turns out to be something subtler and slipperier.
Tom MacRae’s book cleverly shifts the focus as Jamie gets too big – and too bolshy – for his thigh-high boots. It turns its focus from the teenage drag queen determined to steal the spotlight to his supporting cast, quietly wrestling with identity of their own. His mother Margaret gives everything for her son. His mentor Hugo overcomes memories of intolerant times. His best friend Pritti Patel, who wears the hijab, also counts the cost of her clothing choices.
It is, however, Gillespie Sells’ score that really zings and it delivers earworm after earworm. ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’ is a catty, camp anthem that takes over a school classroom, while the title tune crescendo’s like the juiciest gossip coursing through a crowd. Songs like that leave plenty of room for a performance of real personality – and the current Jamie Layton Williams is charisma itself in or out of a cocktail frock.