Shobna Gulati

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

03/03/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Nobody’s talking about sixteen-year-old Jamie New (Layton Williams). There’s nothing remarkable about him. His careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Lara Denning), predicts a future for him as a forklift truck driver. His friend, Pritti (Sharan Phull), does her best to help him to revise. Sure, class eejit Dean Paxton (George Sampson) enjoys a bit of homophobic bullying, but Jamie doesn’t let it get to him. It’s not like his sexuality is a secret.

He does have a secret though: he knows exactly what he wants to do when he leaves school – and it doesn’t involve any forklift trucks. Jamie wants to be a drag queen. But  Miss Hedge keeps banging on about being realistic, and Jamie doesn’t have the confidence to believe that he can realise his dream. Until his lovely mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) buys him some red high heels for his birthday, and Pritti challenges him to drag up for prom – if that’s what he wants to do.

And Jamie realises he’s going to have to come out for a second time.

This is a heartwarming story by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, reminiscent of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in its positive depiction of a young gay man, also called Jamie, loved and supported by his family and friends – although, of course, this one is true. Jamie New experiences very few obstacles: his dad (Cameron Johnson)’s a shit, but so what? He’s got Ray (Shobna Gulati), his mum’s gloriously gobby best mate, who’s always on hand to offer knock-off lippy and sage advice. He doesn’t need his dad. And if Miss Hedge is set against Jamie drawing attention to himself by wearing a dress to prom, clearly the only thing to do is to show her why she’s wrong.

Williams is very appealing in the lead role, and utterly convincing as the conflicted teen, veering between bravado and fear as he works out what kind of adult he wants to be. Shane Richie is hilarious, both as drag shop owner Hugo and his alter ego Loco Chanelle: he’s a seasoned performer with perfect comic timing, and he really knows how to elicit a big laugh. But the standouts are Phull and Gulati: the former’s plaintive singing is beautifully emotive, while the latter’s well-timed profanities are both audacious and refreshing.

It’s a shame the score is kind of meh, with only a couple of notable tunes and no real bangers that linger in the memory. Still, Katie Prince’s lively choreography complements Matt Ryan’s direction well, and I leave the theatre smiling, and glad to see that the real Jamie (Jamie Campbell) is clearly living his best life, posing for photos in a fabulous show gown, a million miles away from a fork lift truck.

 4 stars

Susan Singfield

Anita and Me

28/03/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Meera Syal really knows how to spin a yarn. I read and enjoyed Anita and Me when it was first published, back in 1996. I watched the 2002 movie adaptation too, which was okay, although more superficial than the source novel. So I am interested to see this musical stage production, which is a collaborative effort by The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

And it’s a lively, energetic piece, with an animated central performance from Aasiya Shah as Meena. The story of a young British-Indian girl, coming of age in a time of overt racism, is nicely told. There is anger here – Meena’s fury at local heart-throb Sam’s bigotry and ignorance, for example, and her refusal to allow him to get away with saying “I don’t mean you; I mean those other ones” – but there is humour, sadness, and forgiveness too. Sam’s anger is misdirected, but it’s understandable. He’s at the bottom of the pile, and he’s just lashing out. Far more important is Meena’s internal struggle to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.

It doesn’t work as well as the novel: the brush strokes are too broad and the nuances are lost. Without Meena’s internal monologue to temper our impressions, we’re left with a lot of stock characters behaving in predictable ways, declaiming their positions in loud, stagey voices. The Black Country accents feel overdone; it all needs toning down a bit. The novel has the same naivety, but it’s more credible on the page, when it’s told from a ten-year-old’s point of view. Here, we see the adults on their own terms, not Meena’s, and they are just too exaggerated to convince. It’s a shame, because the amplification hides the heart.

Despite this, there are some lovely moments, and some strong performances. Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford, as Meena’s parents, give the subtlest characterisations, and these are easiest to believe. Nanima is a gift of a comic role, and Rina Fatania clearly revels in it. Meena’s sung letters to agony aunts Cathy and Claire are a nifty device, allowing us some insight into how she feels. And the set is impressively detailed, with some clever scene changes incorporated.

All in all, this is an enjoyable show, with much to recommend it. But it’s not as good as the book.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield