Review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie at Liverpool Empire ****1/2
It’s been a long wait for this inaugural touring production of Sheffield Theatres’ exuberant smash hit musical to arrive at the Empire – 18 months from its original dates to be precise.
But then you wait and wait and wait for one Jamie, and two come along at the same time, with Layton Williams strutting his irrepressible stuff on stage and the real Jamie who inspired the multi award-winning show watching this opening night performance from the stalls.
Because while Everybody’s Talking About Jamie may seem like one of those fantastical theatrical creations, rather like Kinky Boots its central story is actually rooted in reality.
Saying that, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has more a hint of Billy Elliot in its tale of a young man with a passion who doesn’t fit into his surroundings and overcomes the prejudice of family and peers to follow his dreams.
Here, rather than County Durham ballet dancer, Williams’ Jamie is a softly spoken Sheffield soon-to-be school leaver who has received ‘forklift truck driver’ or ‘prison guard’ in the careers’ computer programme’s lucky dip.
But Jamie, supported by his protective single mum Margaret (Amy Ellen Richardson) and family friend Ray (Shobna Gulati delivering a marvellous performance as the blunt-speaking, potty-mouthed honorary auntie) has another, more uplifting, future in mind.
Confiding in the other class outsider, his best friend Pritti (Sharan Phull) and finding a mentor in the once-greatest drag artiste of all time, Loco Chanelle, he embarks on his single-minded quest to become a drag queen and to go to the school prom, proudly, as the real Jamie.
Layton Williams (Jamie) with Shobna Gulati (Ray) and Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret. Top: Layton Williams as Jamie New
On the way there are tears, misunderstandings, lies born of love, harsh truths, and lashings of heart-warming camaraderie from within the world Jamie craves to be a part of.
Bianca Del Rio has taken over the touring role of Loco Chanelle from Shane Ritchie (now there’s an improbable sentence to write), and while the presence of the American drag queen gives the role an extra injection of realism and glamour, her ‘alter ego’ Roy Haylock also impresses as Loco’s creator Hugo.
He’s warm, sympathetic and believable as the supportive father figure the teenage Jamie lacks.
Phull is also excellent as Jamie’s studious sounding-board, while the cast of fellow ‘students’ – including Warrington’s Britain’s Got Talent winner George Sampson as meathead Dean – impress in the tightly-choreographed class numbers.
The real Jamie and Margaret at the Liverpool Empire
But the show, inevitably, belongs to Williams and he’s a fantastically exuberant presence, mixing vulnerability, bravado and showmanship into one long-legged, high-kicking, platform stiletto-wearing performance.
The Bury-born actor took over the role of Jamie in the West End in 2019 and has certainly made it his own, injecting it with captivating joie de vivre.
The story unfolds within a Curious Incident-style box which sits in the middle of the Empire’s wide stage, with the band delivering Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s upbeat ensemble numbers and heartfelt ballads from a first floor eyrie.
Friendship, bravery, being true to yourself, inclusion and acceptance – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is certainly on point, but it’s also just the kind of uplifting night out we all need right now.