Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, 27th December 2017

Everybody's Talking About JamieAs has become traditional, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took ourselves off for a few days break in London between Christmas and New Year to see some shows (makes a change), have some nice meals (makes a change), and treat ourselves to something in the sales. I got three shirts and she got a jacket and trousers, if you’re interested. The first of our four post-Christmas shows was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which I wanted to see earlier in the year in Sheffield but just couldn’t fit it in to our schedule. Two friends saw it up there and enjoyed it hugely. I have to confess though, one of the reasons I really wanted to see it is because I hadn’t been to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for decades. Checking back, my last show there was on 29th October 1982, when I saw that very dull play Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets. It starred Hair’s Annabel Leventon, Nicholas Nickleby’s John Woodvine and Skippy’s Ed Devereaux.

jamie3But I digress. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell and his mum Margaret. Jamie featured in the BBC3 documentary about himself, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, as a teenager who wanted to go to the school prom wearing a dress. The creative team deliberately didn’t meet Jamie and Margaret until after the show had been thoroughly worked through, because they wanted the freedom to create their own characters who tell their own story. The real Jamie and Margaret didn’t actually see the show until its first night – and by all accounts it’s extraordinary how close the show is to their own real-life experience.

Jamie1Jamie New (no longer Campbell) stands out somewhat at his school, and not just because he’s the tallest. He’s openly gay and very camp, but most of his contemporaries simply accept him the way he is. The girls are his pals, the boys swap banter with him; but he’s besties with Pritti, who’s also on the edge of school society, being the school swot and a hijab-wearing Muslim. He lives with his very supportive Mum, and gets on great with her best friend Ray. There are only three flies in his ointment: his dad, who can’t come to terms with his son’s sexuality and behaviour; school bully Dean, for whom Jamie is a natural target; and careers teacher Miss Hedge, who wants to encourage Jamie to become something that he isn’t. Jamie’s dream is to be a drag queen, and Miss Hedge can’t see a future in that; she agrees with the computer assessment that he should be a forklift truck driver (#yeahright). And then, for his 16th birthday, Jamie’s mum buys him a new pair of shoes…

ETAJ1If any show cried out Instant Hit, this is it! Dan Gillespie Sells’ (yes, he of The Feeling) music is as bright, appealing and entertaining as you might expect, and Tom Macrae’s lyrics and book (co-written with director Jonathan Butterell) are smart, witty and emotional in all the right places. The songs do just the right thing, by moving the plot forward and complementing our understanding of the characters. Anna Fleischle’s set design is crackingly effective, with what would double as Shirley Valentine’s kitchen for Jamie’s home environment and a versatile arrangement of school desks for almost everything else. And Jamie’s story has feelgood factor written through it like a stick of rock; you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to come away from this show unmoved.

ETAJ2Another great plus is that the largely unknown cast is full of surprises! Fifteen of them are making their West End debut, and their own freshness and excitement really communicates itself to the audience. The ensemble of schoolkids sing and dance with great verve and vivacity, their individual characterisations sparking off each other to great effect. Luke Baker’s Dean is far more than a mere stock villain, as he effectively portrays the character’s essential loneliness, and how out of touch he is with his contemporaries, as much as his antagonism towards Jamie. Lucie Shorthouse is a terrific discovery as the kind-hearted, conservative but feisty Pritti. It’s a great role, and she gave me an insight into a teenage Muslim girl’s life that I’ve never experienced before; plus Ms Shorthouse has a voice to die for, with a richness and maturity way beyond her years.

Jamie7There’s some genuinely fabulous drag queenery from Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob as the trio Laika Virgin, Tray Sophisticay and Sandra Bollock; it comes as no surprise to find out that two of these performers have their own real-life drag alter-egos, and I’m guessing from the huge cheer for Mr Jacob at curtain call that there were a few Royal Vauxhall Tavern die-hards in the audience that afternoon! What did surprise me was to see comedy stand-up Phil Nichol, whom we’d seen trying out Edinburgh material earlier in the year, taking the role of Hugo, a.k.a. inspirational drag queen Loco Chanelle. Mr Nichol is the kind of person the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to dislike because he’s good at everything. He superbly conveys the generosity and sadness of the character with a very honest and moving performance – and he’s not backward in coming forward with the glitter either.

Jamie5Tamsin Carroll, whom we last saw as a brilliant Charity Barnum in Chichester a few years ago, again excels as the bossy but strangely vivacious Miss Hedge; it’s a difficult task to make an unsympathetic character likeable, but she achieves it. Josie Walker is extraordinary as Margaret, portraying the character’s powerful combination of support and self-doubt, and her performance of the song “He’s My Boy” almost stopped the show. There’s excellent support from Mina Anwar as the down-to-earth Ray and Ken Christiansen as Jamie’s dad, effectively conveying his brutality and cruelty whilst never becoming the panto baddie.

ETAJ3But the night definitely belongs to John McCrea as Jamie. Instantly likeable, you’re on his side from the very start, just willing the character on to better and greater things. Mr McCrea absolutely captures that sense of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence in a young person who’s finding their way and discovering who they are. As his confidence grows so does the audience’s support, and we all go on his journey together. Mr M has an amazing stage presence and knows precisely how to wrap us all around his little finger. We hug him in his hours of need, we rejoice at his triumphs. Messrs Macrae and Butterell have written a humdinger of a role, with some brilliant lines and plenty of opportunities to shine; and Mr McCrea takes them and makes the best of them all.

Jamie6One of those rare events; a British musical that really works, performed by a stunning cast that gets it right 100%. Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and I expect they will for some time to come. Unmissable!

Production photos by Johan Persson and Alistair Muir

Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 9th July 2017

Comedy CrateI was idly thumbing through Facebook the other day and saw, as you do, that a friend was interested in a local event: The first ever Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton, thirty acts over two days in three venues: The Lab, The Charles Bradlaugh and The Black Prince. How fantastic, and innovative, to create such an event where comics can take a slot for work in progress towards their Edinburgh shows in a month’s time. We’d already booked to see Miss Saigon on the Saturday, but that left the Sunday free… £16 for a wristband allowing you access to see five shows seemed a bargain, although £27 for two days works out at just £2.70 a show if you see everything you can, which is, indeed, top value.

First, some feedback about the venues – we saw two shows at the Bradlaugh, two at the Black Prince and one at the Lab. The Charles Bradlaugh has an excellent upstairs room capable of accommodating a big crowd for a comedy gig; it’s comfortable, has a well-stocked bar, and excellent sightlines; my only criticism would be that it can get too hot, but that’s a common problem in well attended comedy venues! The Lab is a much smaller venue with a nice intimate feel, but the hard chairs are, well, ouch! The bar is rather poorly stocked and when the barmen natter to each other during the show, the noise interrupts the act (just a friendly piece of advice for the future!) The quirky Black Prince was probably my favourite; a medium sized venue with an array of different types of seating from hard chairs to sofa, to stools, so you can take your pick for comfort. It also has a lovely garden for pre- or post-show drinkies.

Each venue had five shows a day, all at the same time, so you basically have a choice of three shows for each comedy slot. We’re lucky enough to see quite a bit of comedy so we’d already seen a number of the acts on show; and I thought, in best Fringe tradition, that it would be a good opportunity to catch some acts we didn’t know. That meant no to Stephen Bailey, Larry Dean, Geoff Norcott and Ed Byrne (and from Saturday’s line up, we would have missed Stuart Goldsmith, Pippa Evans and James Acaster. Didn’t they have some good names?!) So I made my choices in advance, and very nearly stuck to them. Let’s take them one by one.

Tom Toal (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Tom ToalWell this is where it gets difficult. Tom Toal’s Edinburgh show is Better Than Before, a rather intricate narrative show about following your dreams. It’s extremely clever, but, after a very welcoming and enjoyable first few minutes, including one great joke, I can’t say that either of us found the rest of it particularly funny. There’s a big setup for a significant callback which relies on the audience recognising, or not recognising, the name of an apparently infamous figure in history. Neither of us knew who this person was, and as a result we felt that we had totally misunderstood the punchline of a long joke. Disheartened, it made us feel a bit stupid, took us out of comedy-mode, and as a result the routine never regained traction with us. Mr T is clearly a likeable guy but this really needed to be a lot funnier than it was. Hey ho, there’s still time, that’s why you have work-in-progress try outs!

Ian Smith (4.30pm Black Prince)

Ian SmithIan Smith seems to have a quiet, unassuming personality, until he lets loose on a flight of fancy, and he’s off like a racehorse! A naturally very funny man, with a great understanding of those bizarre things people do, with which he then confronts you, so you absolutely recognise yourself in his comic scenarios. His Edinburgh show is called Snowflake, and is all about uniqueness – and how it is that we’re all unique yet we’re all the same. Over-running by fifteen minutes (with subsequent knock-on effects for the next show!) he has way too much material, but what to cut out? Because it was all brilliant. Reflections of Tromso including marvellous mental images of shitting huskies, (he found out we’d been there, so at least I added a little something to his act); words that don’t translate into English, but really ought to; googling people with your own name; and getting dismissed via the medium of poetry. The show was frequently interrupted by people wandering in and just standing alongside the stage and Mr Smith did a brilliant job of weaving them into his routine. Extremely funny and I would definitely recommend catching his show.

Jack Barry (6pm The Lab)

Jack BarryWith Stephen Bailey in one venue and Larry Dean in another, I guess Jack Barry was always going to be the least attended gig in this slot – and indeed, there were just seven of us in the audience. Sometimes it happens. But that’s an opportunity for the comic to draw on their resources and keep going, ensuring those seven have a good time – and that’s exactly what Jack Barry did. His Edinburgh show is High Treason, a comedy lecture about the benefits of legalising drugs. This is always going to be something that divides an audience, but Mr Barry does a very good job of keeping everyone onside, and actually he comes up with some clever (and funny) arguments to support his case. He has a very engaging style and a confident, fluid delivery and I thought he was extremely good. I hope his show gets a much better turnout in Edinburgh, because it certainly deserves it!

Ed Gamble (7.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Ed GambleWe had originally planned to see Glenn Wool in this slot at the Black Prince, but for some reason got sidetracked by the prospect of crisps and alcohol at the Bradlaugh as we were walking by. I’d only seen Ed Gamble on TV before so he still counted as “one we hadn’t seen on stage before”. A huge crowd obviously had the same idea, and by the time we’d gone upstairs to find somewhere to sit, our only option was standing at the bar. Still that did give us an excellent view of the stage, and also the opportunity to observe a very serious looking Mr Gamble prowling around the back of the room like an anxious cat, waiting for his moment to pounce on the stage. Once on, he presents a really slick and confident act, absolutely jam-packed full of laughter. Much of the material stems from his running a marathon – including the natural show-offishness that it engenders – and a really funny, if essentially simple, routine on holding in a fart whilst being massaged. There are some wonderful flight of fancy moments, such as treating a tethered priest as if it were a family pet (you had to be there) or how the boys at his posh school would have talked to each other. And there’s a brilliant explanation of how you can tell you’re in a spa. He was cheekily challenged by a guy at the front and I thought his subsequent put down erred on the cruel, so beware of sitting in the front row! But he’s naturally a brilliant comic and this was probably the show during which I laughed the most. Maybe, ever so slightly, a little safe? He’s not one of those comics who will examine a serious situation in an attempt to change the world through the medium of observational humour and surprise revelations. He’s far more likely to make fun of a burp. But he does it so very, very well. His Edinburgh show is called Mammoth and I predict a riot.

Phil Nichol (9pm Black Prince)

Phil NicholIt’s interesting to arrive early at a venue when the comic is still setting up and if he doesn’t mind having a chat with you whilst he’s getting ready. Phil Nichol is one such chap. You can tell right away that he’s a perfectionist, and you suspect that if the show goes wrong he’s really going to beat himself up about it. He looks down at his notes for the show, sighs, makes a few comments about how it’s all designed to find out what works and what doesn’t, looks at his notes again, sighs, and looks at you as if to say, “please don’t hurt me, I’m a lovely puppy.” He has no need to worry. His Edinburgh show, Your Wrong, deliberately, I’m sure, spelt grammatically incorrectly, talks about making mistakes, but primarily gives Mr Nichol a chance to rail against the world with all the power invested in him by his hard-hitting, energetic, excitable style. Much of the material stems from his relationship with his family, where he gives us a vivid and hilarious picture of being brought up in a Brethren household – praise God and pass the butter – and the account of the tragedy that befell his beloved older brother. En route, you get an insight into how Anne Robinson refused to be upstaged by him, and a new explanation for why the chicken crossed the road. “Some people say I should slow down my words a little”, he confessed, shortly before the show began. They’re probably right. But what you come away with is an impression of a man possessed by passion, desperate to drive home his points, and creating a comedy craftwork that both satisfies your desire to laugh and juxtaposes personal tragedy in the context of humour. It really makes you think, and it really makes you laugh. I loved it, and I’m sure it’s going to be an Edinburgh smash.

And that was our day! What a great day it was. Huge congratulations to the organisers and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th October 2013

Screaming Blue MurderUnfortunately we had to miss the last Screaming Blue Murder so this was our first burst of SBM comedy for a month. Our host as usual was the extremely funny Dan Evans, who coped manfully with the lady who wanted him to buy a new suit (it’s true, he has been wearing it for at least five years now) and who scoffed at his regular attempt to flog a few books. Admirably he tried out some new material but it kind of fell by the wayside so he reverted to the tried and tested stuff which certainly helped the newbies warm the place up.

Nathan CatonThe three acts consisted of one new one to us and two we had seen before but a long time ago – before I started blogging this regular comedic feast. First up was Nathan Caton, who we hadn’t seen before, and he is a total breath of fresh air. Original, inventive material combined with a likeable personality and a very subtle way of making his point. He had some brilliant anti-racist scenarios which led us all down the garden path beautifully, like the little old lady who doesn’t like to say “black”; some great “your mum” lines; and new insights into dealing with an upstart younger brother. Frankly, we could have watched him all night long.

Howard ReadOur second act was Howard Read, who we didn’t remember until his act started, and then it all came flooding back and I think it was identical to the one we saw a couple of years ago. He has a very quiet, stylish, respectable persona, which lends itself well to the main thrust of his act, which is how having children has ruined his life. His comic songs are extremely funny, and will certainly make you think again about ways to keep the kids quiet when they should be asleep.

Phil NicholLast up was Phil Nichol, again I was expecting him to be new to us, but when he came on stage I instantly recognised his manic Canadian-based audience interaction from an SBM session a few years ago. He’s loud, out-of-control, constantly surprising, and very funny. I really liked his circle of London accents, and his comedy music is an assault on the senses (in a good way). It felt like his act just went too quickly.

So all in all a very good night as usual, with a very nicely balanced programme. Numbers this season still seem a bit down at the moment, you can’t get better value for your comic pound than coming to this show, so get booking!