Everyone’s talking about gender identity, gender dysphoria, gender politics. So there was a real risk that a musical about a sixteen year old boy whose ambitions are twofold – to attend his school prom in a dress and to have a career as a drag-queen – could descend into preachy, judgemental political correctness.
What actually emerges is a moving, life-affirming meditation on having the confidence to be different, a mother’s unconditional love for her son, and the challenges of high school life.
Inspired by the 2011 TV documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16”, Director Jonathan Butterell and his co-writers Dan Gillespie-Sells and Tom MacRae created the production which was originally given a three-week run at the Crucible in Sheffield before transferring to the West End in 2017. It is now on the road for its second UK tour and we were lucky enough to see it at the Wales Millennium Centre.
From the opening scene it is clear that politically correct this is not. With frequent swearing and the use of racist and homophobic slurs the age guidance of 14+ seems appropriate. It might be best avoided by those easily offended, and the couple in front of us did not return after the interval, but this language does serve a purpose in authentically representing how people really do speak to each other and the hostility that those who dare to be different face. The musical manages to be both hugely fun and extremely poignant while making deeply political points lightly.
The classrooms scenes, beautifully choreographed, were reminiscent of those in “Matilda”. They capture high school life, dominated by bullying, gossip and insecurity, only too well. Jordan Ricketts, as the sneering tormentor Dean was all too believable. His realisation towards the end of the show that being top dog at school will likely be the pinnacle of his life as he moves into an adulthood of menial jobs managed to provoke sympathy despite his awfulness up to that point.
The relationship between Jamie and his mum, Margaret, is central to the story. Margaret and her best friend, Ray, have been Jamie’s protectors and cheerleaders throughout his life in stark contrast to his father who is ashamed of him. Jamie’s emerging self-confidence and burgeoning aspirations threaten to destabilise the relationship. The solo “He’s my boy”, beautifully sung on this occasion by Georgina Hagen, with the lyrics “He’s my boy, He drives me insane… My pleasure, my pain… My blessing, my curse…” captures Margaret’s ambivalence perfectly. It certainly resonated with this mum of a teenage boy and presumably with much of the audience judging by the extended applause and cheers at it’s end.
And what of Jamie himself? Ivano Turco is the fourth Jamie and could have been born into the role. He manages to capture the gawky, awkwardness of adolescence at the same time as delicately balancing Jamie’s desperate need for approval from his absent father with his delight at being accepted into the world of his drag queen peers.
At two hours and forty minutes the pace and energy does not waver for a moment. The production does not put a foot wrong, from the sets to the score to the performers. It manages to be a fun, funny and uplifting show which touches on deep issues without ever becoming too serious or earnest. At the end of the show the cast were rewarded with a thoroughly-deserved, prolonged standing ovation from the adoring audience, who no doubt will be talking about Jamie for some time to come.