Review:Brighton Theatre Group: Everybody’s Talking about Jamie at The Old Market, Hove

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Brighton Theatre Group Youth have done it again!  It’s the magic combination of Producer Keith Shepherd, Director Michael Burnie, Choreographer Jodie Michele and Musical Director Carl Greenwood.  The musical “Everybody’s Talking about Jamie” is based on the true story of a 16-year-old schoolboy whose career ambition was to become a drag queen.  It played last week at The Old Market theatre in Hove, to a sold-out audience.

This BTG Youth production featured youngsters with general ages of 16, plus or minus. And yet, the maturity with which the parts were played, belied their young years..

The stage opens to a classroom. A bell rings and ebullient Year Eleven students bounce onto the scene and take their desks. Their teacher, Miss Hedge (Liv Thompson), asks about their career ambitions: all the predictable professions (though one wants to marry a billionaire); except for fair haired, good-looking Jamie (James Kiley), who unashamedly declares he wants to be a drag queen.

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The classroom suddenly becomes his Mum’s kitchen sideboard. (How do they change scenes without our noticing?) Rosa Farrington is Margaret New, Jamie’s mother. Simple frock and discreet makeup give her the grownup look of a loving, supportive Mum, unfazed by her son’s preferences. She’s sensible and passionate. She’s proud of him: “You’re my boy.”, she sings later. Ray (Ella Scott) is her lively and supportive friend.

Jamie in red shoes, with his motherJamie in red shoes, with his mother
Jamie in red shoes, with his mother

It’s Jamie’s birthday. With a flourish, Mum and Ray present him with a parcel, plus a card from absent father. Jamie’s thrilled with what he unwraps - a pair of red high heeled shoes! He puts them on and prances around.

Shortly after, though, a bout of self-doubt creeps in and he sings “I’m building this wall in my head.”

Come in Hugo - played by Asher Starr, 18 years old going on 30. He has a circular rail of colourful dresses for sale. His attractive oriental features make him the perfect salesman and mentor. Jamie’s first venture towards feminine clothes (apart from the time his father caught him trying on a dress of his mother’s) is in this extraordinary shop. “The dress must choose you,” says Hugo. So Jamie closes his eyes and riffles around the circular rack, stopping at a long red dress. He pulls it off the hanger, marvelling at its loveliness. With the red high heels and a long blonde wig, actor James Kiley becomes a stunning woman. He is who he wants to be.

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Later, when Asher himself transforms to the extravagantly dressed Loco Chanelle you wouldn’t think it was the same person. He’s marvellous.

Drag queensDrag queens
Drag queens

And that brings me to all the backstage support - the army of props handlers who help with the frantic costume changes for actors who play different characters; and the scene changers.

In one scene there’s a toilet booth on stage (what?), with Jamie trying to put on makeup in a mirror, Pritti Pasha, (Chanel Pritchard), his faithful friend, who wears a hijab, assisting: till he’s discovered and dragged down from an escape window..

Isaac Howard, 16 but so convincing as Jamie’s father, Wayne New, puts a damper on Jamie’s positive stance. No, it wasn’t him who gave Jamie that card - it was his mum covering for him. “I wanted a son so badly,” said his father, “and I got you.”

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In short, Kiley shows a range of emotions from put-down insecurities to defiant self-confidence, that finally takes him to stage performances and to the school Prom. A defining moment. Looking self-consciously pretty in a fashionable short dress, teachers wouldn’t allow him into the ballroom. His supportive class mates shout “Jamie, Jamie,” and they relent. Compliments to the lively class mates who formed this supportive ensemble.

SchoolchildrenSchoolchildren
Schoolchildren

With Burnie’s shrewd casting choice, James Kiley was the real ‘Jamie’. His vitality fostered his unwavering sense of purpose. Blonde, good-looking, slim and able to handle a pair of high heel shoes without wobbling. How did he find his size? He couldn’t lose.

At school they sometimes made fun of Jamie. Teacher tells him off when he appears in a red scarf and makeup. “You’re so ugly,” he’s told. Never mind - he is who he is. “I’m Mimi Me,” he declares, and goes on to find a group of other outlandishly dressed drag queens. It’s a ‘fraternity’ all of its own where Jamie can discuss dress-up techniques. Brilliant. “I see my future standing tall,” he sings. “There’s a place where I belong.”

Jamie finds a sympathetic ear in special friend Pritti. “I’m a Muslim girl with a Hindu first name,” she says, making no apologies for wearing her hijab. Chanel could have been born to the part. She’s heartwarming and life-affirming, vowing she and Jamie will always ‘dance’ together, not only at the Prom. (Trinity Kendrick, playing Fatima, is in fact another charismatic hijab wearer).

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There’s so much action, laughter and passion in the story that I could go on and on. There’s always got to be a bully, of course - Fred Lindfield plays Dean Paxton, who picks on Jamie, but gets some pertinent rejoinders.

Jamie chatting with PrittiJamie chatting with Pritti
Jamie chatting with Pritti

The second act brings in the whole classroom in their uniforms, belting out the title song, with dance and singing, and Jamie comes in to catch them at it.

It’s a highlight of the show, but with so many more emotional sides it couldn’t fail to be a positive experience where anything can happen. This is a one-off for BTG - the show being so new - but I hope that in the future they’ll do it again.

Music Director, Carl Greenwood, led an orchestra that bound the show together and gave it life. That, the songs and the dance - even some acrobatics. And the enormous backstage production team, without whom the show couldn’t happen.

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Producer Keith Shepherd, as I’ve said before, is the father figure, assisted by his wife Cally - front-of-house as well as backstage chaperone.

Once we know the story, we realise how Brighton Theatre Group’s talented and enthusiastic cast perform with knowledge and confidence beyond their years. And this is the message, based on the real Jamie of 2011, who inspired the show: that a person should be who they are, regardless of what others think. 3

PS: A touching programme message from composer Dan Gillespie Sells: Wishing BTG so much luck for the show. BREAK A NAIL!

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” graces the Theatre Royal stage in February. Tickets on sale now.