Tuesday 21 September 2021

Everybody's Talking About Jamie

Curve, Leicester

Monday 20th September

‘Beautiful, a little bit of glitter in the grey’


This past weekend saw the return of the much-loved West End Live in Trafalgar Square. A free festival for theatre lovers, the event has increased in popularity each year (I still remember the early years when everyone was crammed into Leicester Square and only a handful of shows took part!), and eventually it will outgrow its current home too (where next? Hyde Park?). It’s a true highlight of the theatrical calendar and I have many fond memories of attending every year as a birthday treat with my mum and sister. And it was on such a day several years ago that we, alongside thousands of fellow musical fans, were treated to Dan Gillespie Sells’ acoustic preview of a couple of tracks from his new musical project: an adaptation of a little-known documentary about an aspiring teenage drag queen from Sheffield. Little did I know on that scorching afternoon in June that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (co-written with Tom McCrae and original Director, Jonathan Butterell) would be the biggest new British musical in a decade, playing over 1000 performances in the West End, spawning a film adaptation (which was released on Amazon Prime last Friday), and now heading off on it’s first (belated) UK tour.

The story is simple but effective. Sixteen year old Jamie New longs to be a drag queen, an ambition he keeps secret from his classmates and his waspish teacher, who continually tells him to ‘keep it real’ while recommending that he pursue a ‘normal’ career such as becoming a fork-lift driver or prison guard. With the help of his selfless mum, studious best friend and a local veteran drag queen, Jamie fulfils his dreams, though not without hitting a few snags along the way.

While the musical’s themes of acceptance and embracing individuality are universal, it’s a quintessentially British show. Jamie’s glamourous fantasies are juxtaposed with the kitchen-sink reality of life in a working-class community, and the relationship between Jamie and Margaret is touching and grounded representation of single-parent families. McCrae’s amusing yet low-key plot, coupled with Butterell’s simple direction, is one of the show’s selling points, as the emphasis is placed on small, everyday situations, based in a relatable environment. Jamie isn’t aiming for fame and fortune, he isn’t campaigning on a global scale, his goal and driving passion is his determination to wear a dress to his school prom. The scale is small, but the stakes are high and highly personal, making the final triumph that much sweeter. Hopefully every young person watching that has ever felt different, or had to hide their true self can identify with Jamie and find inspiration from his story.

Gillespie Sells’ music is catchy without being cloying, offering a mix of poppy bangers such as the title song, ‘Work of Art’, and ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, interspersed with sweetly contemplative numbers like ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘It Means Beautiful’. Margaret’s Act 2 showstopper ‘My Boy’ is a tear-jerking and heart-warming ode to a mother’s unconditional love for her child, delivered with powerful emotion by Amy Ellen Richardson. The domestic setting occasionally gives way to glorious flights of theatrical fancy, courtesy of the drag performers at the local Legs Eleven club. A particular highlight is camp noir pastiche number ‘The Legend of Loco Chanel’, as Shane Richie’s Hugo has a blast recounting his alter-ego’s misadventures of old. Curve veteran Sharan Phull also excels in the role of Pritti, Jamie’s kind and fiercely loyal best friend, while Shobna Gulati offers great comedic support as family friend, Ray. Layton Williams returns after leading the show in the West End, and his Jamie is wonderfully endearing, charismatic and sympathetic. Williams has excellent comic timing and in his sheer effervescence he emanates that elusive quality that producers world-over clamour for: Star Power.

Neither cynical nor saccharine, Gillespie Sells, McCrae and Butterell’s show is currently the jewel in the UK Musical Theatre crown. I have no doubt that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will continue to delight audiences for years to come, and has hopefully paved the way for more home-grown musicals that celebrate the unapologetic joy of individualism within British culture.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie plays at Curve until 25th September and continues to tour the UK. For full tour details please visit: https://www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/2020-uk-tour/ 

The cast of Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Credit: Matt Crockett

Monday 13 September 2021

East is East

 Birmingham Rep

11th September, 2021, matinee

Tradition see, Ella

25 years after its first performance at the Rep, Ayub Khan Din’s comedy about a British-Pakistani family in 1970s Salford returns home to Birmingham. In Iqbal Khan’s production for the Rep and National Theatre, East is East feels like both a modern classic and as fresh as a new play.

In a Salford terrace, George Khan, having moved from Pakistan in the 1930s, runs his family like his business. His wife and children all work at his chip shop and he’s got plans to marry two of his sons off to an acquaintance’s two daughters. He waxes lyrically about the values he was brought up with and demands respect, instructing his children how many baskets of potatoes to peel almost as punishment. His children largely want to rebel from this. Whether that’s with their fashions and wanting to stay out all night, or studying Art at college (not Engineering). They peer through the venetian blinds at the chip shop to check if their dad is coming and sprinkle curry powder around the living room to hide the smell of bacon. We’re told that one son has been banished from the family household after choosing to be a hairdresser, so the stakes are high. The great success of Khan Din’s play, and indeed in Khan’s production, is the utter believability of the characters. The actors gel fantastically and we are plunged immediately from the get-go into a totally credible illustration of family life. The kids squabble continually, they moan and groan at their parents, yet there is always an underlying fondness to the jibes.

We see this world through the (camera) lens of George and Ella’s youngest son, Sajit. Picked on by his siblings, misunderstood and sometimes forgotten by his parents - as the only uncircumcised boy in the family, this presents the initial catalyst for Khan Din’s skewering of cultural frictions - Sajit’s confusion and insecurity manifest in his a shabby, smelly old parka, that he wears constantly, as a comfort blanket. Noah Manzoor portrays Sajit’s wide-eyed innocence and anxiety very well, and the ubiquitous parka takes on a life of its own in the hilarious denouement. Another stand out is Amy-Leigh Hickman, who impresses as George and Ella’s only daughter, Meenah. Strong-willed and independent, Meenah rules the roost, always having the last word over her brothers, and Hickman plays this with infectious glee. While often complaining about her parents’ rules and her dad’s insistence on embracing Pakistani traditions, her fiery temper, quick wit and impressive ability to have an answer to anything and everything, reveals an affinity with her father that is both comic and quite touching. Of all the children, Meenah appears to be the most like both her parents.

Sophie Stanton gives a lovely performance as the endearing, put-upon Ella. Her exasperation is as tangible as her fierce loyalty and devotion to her family. While perhaps often a foil to her husband and children’s more gregarious antics, Stanton makes the most of Ella’s droll one-liners. At the centre of the play, Tony Jayawardena is a big presence as patriarch, George. He is larger than life, and often very, very funny. Jayawardena portrays George’s wild hypocrisies with hilarious credulity, whether that be his flip-flopping opinions on the partition of India and the Pakistani war, or his opinions on arranged marriage and interracial relationships. Yet, the humour underlying George’s irrationality doesn’t deprive the character of bite. As Jayawardena demonstrates, George can turn on a dime, transforming into an imposing physical threat to his family. In fact, the bursts of violence are all the more shocking because of the humour elsewhere.

Although much has changed since the 70s, the characters and issues are still recognisable. This is a play about the push and pull of home, about a sense of belonging and being betwixt and between different cultures. It’s this that much of the production’s well-played comedy and pathos derives. As the final scene reaches the heady heights of a very British cultural form, farce, George’s somewhat old-fashioned ambitions fall apart. As Abdul says in the play, he has ‘no right to tell us what our culture should be’.

Both provocative and rousing, nostalgic and contemporary, audiences can still relate to the humour and themes of East is East 25 years later. As the audience rapturously cheered at Ella telling Mr Shah to ‘Sling your bleeding hook, go on, piss off’, it’s a timely reminder that what unites us is greater than what sets us apart. This reaction to a play from a large audience is what I’ve missed about theatre during lockdown – theatre at its best, surely.

East is East plays at Birmingham Rep until 25th September before transferring to the National Theatre from 7th-30th October as part of a wider tour.



Sophie Stanton and Tony Jayawardena in East is East. Photograph: Pamela Raith

Thursday 9 September 2021

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

 Curve, Leicester

8th September, 2021

Mendacity is a system that we live in

The RTST’s Sir Peter Hall Director Award champions emerging directors tackling big plays for audiences around the country. Previous winners include Nancy Medina who directed a masterful production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in 2019. Back in January of last year, the current recipient Anthony Almeida featured in Curve’s season preview ahead of this revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). At the time, we wrote that he spoke eloquently about his affection of the play’s emotional setting and how he threw away any assumptions when reading it. Over 18 months later, on a hot September night, we finally got to see his production. Almeida’s fresh take on the play brilliantly evokes the heat and intensity of the Deep South setting.

Rosanna Vize’s design opens with a translucent gauze circling Brick and Maggie’s bedroom. The white curtain cools the heat of the room and hints at the wider plantation beyond the gallery doors. Brick and Maggie play much of their opening scene behind it and on opposite sides of it to each other, evocative of an emotional barrier between the two. If this offers a degree of protection to the heat of the Delta, it is soon ripped down in one of Brick’s drunken struggles, revealing the room, including its harsh red floor, as a confrontational space with nowhere for the characters to hide. Vize’s design is effective in its simplicity, and nicely synchronised with Almeida’s direction in that both are stripped of any fuss.

Williams plays with space in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The private sanctuary of the bedroom becomes a public arena for humiliation and personal confrontation of unwanted truths. Characters are in a constant struggle for privacy and breaking that privacy: whether that is Maggie locking the door only for Big Mama to come in, or Mae, Gooper and their five ‘no neck monsters’ trying to interrupt. In Almeida’s production, this is blasted open. There are no walls meaning phone calls from the hallway take place centre stage and Big Mama stands over Brick from her first entrance. Everything is out in the open. This is no more apparent than in the scene where Big Daddy confronts Brick about his alcoholism and relationship with his friend Skipper. Whereas in the text, the gallery is an offstage place for eavesdropping, here the intruders are ever-present, watching their private conversation from the sides. As Big Daddy says, ‘It’s hard to talk in this place’.

It’s a fascinating play, a crucible of familial tensions and personal demons. It’s made more interesting by having two versions of Act Three. It’s my first time seeing the play, but I notice they’ve chosen the original Broadway version, different to the original version Williams wrote. Almeida has made some other strong choices. Placing the interval at the height of Act Two allows him to build the tension again in the lead up and aftermath of Big Daddy’s exit in the second half. Imagining the final phone conversation between Brick and Skipper also gives us some more insight into what Skipper meant to Brick. Almeida also has an eye for detail for the peripheral characters, always watching from the side-lines. I particularly enjoyed Sam Alexander’s Gooper absent-mindedly tucking into Big Daddy’s birthday cake, candles still lit, as he stared into the distance struggling with the fact he’ll always be second best.

There are moments when Almeida’s direction reminds me of Ivo Van Hove’s treatment of the ‘classics’, most notably in the moment in Act Three when Big Daddy struggles, but is ultimately, undoubtedly, triumphant in lifting an upended table. This is reminiscent of the equally vivid ‘chair scene’, which was afforded new resonance in Van Hove’s 2014 production of A View from the Bridge. The scene echoes that production not only in its menacing tension, but is also evocative of Van Hove’s aesthetic focus on stark physicality off-set by an ethereal sense of purgatorial unease. This approach suits Williams’ play, where physical, mental and emotional boundaries are crossed and blurred in a space where there is literally nowhere to hide.

The production features some fine performances, led by Peter Forbes’ Big Daddy. He growls at Big Mama to be quiet and roams the stage like an older lion trying to keep control of his pack. The character provides much of the humour to the play but it’s often coarse or at the expense of someone else. In a way he feels like the keystone, all the other characters either fawning over him or playing in an unwinnable game of one-upmanship for his praise. That is all apart from Brick, searching for the ‘click’ in his head. Oliver Johnstone gives a physical performance as the faded football star. He’s often in a world of his own either hobbling around stage in search for his next drink or bouncing a balloon at the back of the stage. Rounding off the central performances, Siena Kelly is magnetic as a breathless Maggie, seductive yet malicious, headstrong yet desperate. Kelly manages to balance the many facets of the character while maintaining an odd, yet entirely believable purity of spirit. Kelly is most definitely a name to look out for.

Almeida has shown with this production that he has a bright future ahead, and in updating such a well-known play proves that there are still unplumbed depths in all the classic plays. In exposing the bare bones of the play, and placing the relationships at the fore, Almeida has created not only a highly entertaining piece of theatre, but a tableau of family life that can still resonate with modern audiences.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays at Leicester’s Curve until 18th September, before touring to Liverpool Playhouse, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Theatr Clwyd, and MAST Studios Southampton until 30th October.


Oliver Johnstone and Siena Kelly in Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Credit: Marc Brenner