Steeling the show

Steeling the show

A sensational stage premiere, a West End hit and now it’s heading home to Yorkshire. Think theatre tour, think fabulous film. David Parkin finds out why Everybody’s Talking About…Sheffield!

It is the latest Yorkshire underdog story to capture the hearts of audiences around the world. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie attracted sold-out audiences during a West End theatre run last year.

But that was just the start, with the musical set to make an even bigger splash in 2020 - with a national tour bringing it back to its home city of Sheffield and the premiere of a star studded Hollywood film. Inspired by a BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the show tells the true story of Jamie Campbell, a teenager living on a council estate who doesn’t quite fit in.

Terrified about the future but bursting with talent, Jamie is supported by his loving mum and surrounded by his friends who help him overcome prejudice, beat the bullies and step out into the spotlight Following in the footsteps of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, this quirky, warm-hearted Yorkshire tale about a teenage boy who dreams of becoming a drag queen, starring Layton Williams and EastEnders’ Shane Richie, has proved a smash hit. It boasts an original score of catchy pop tunes by lead singer-songwriter of The Feeling, Dan Gillespie Sells and Dr Who screenwriter Tom MacRae. But as Dan Bates, chief executive of Sheffield Theatres, recalls, a bit like Jamie himself, while the show had a lot going for it, it still faced an uphill battle to find success.

“The director got in touch with us and said they had an idea for a show that would be great for Sheffield. I knew of the documentary. I liked the idea. I know Sheffield likes a true story and really likes an underdog story,” says Bates.

“It is one of the few Cities of Sanctuary, taking people under their wing (in 2007 Sheffield became the first UK City of Sanctuary, for asylum seekers and refugees, welcoming those in need of safety).” Despite commissioning the show after recognising the excitement and “spark” it generated, Bates admits that there was still a high risk that it might not be successful.

“It was a big show, a risky show with an unknown title. Audiences like a hook - so a story they know, a recognised title or a famous person as the star - and we had none of those! But it had a top-notch cast and I was blown away by the energy of it.” Bates remembers that on the eve of its opening at the iconic Crucible Theatre in 2017 ticket sales had not been good. But that was the last time there was any question mark over the success of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

“We hold a public dress rehearsal the day before every show opens and people can come and watch in return for a donation. You can tell the success of the show by the length of the queue in the morning and we had a big queue! As soon as the show finished the whole audience was on their feet. They told their friends, the reaction through social media and word of mouth was amazing.”

Bates puts the success of the show down to its combination of being a great story told with energy about an underdog triumphing against the odds. “So many families came to see the show - it touched people’s hearts,” he says.

The show’s West End success will transfer to the big screen later this year with the release of a film. Sheffield-based Warp Films has teamed up with Film4 and New Regency to reunite the original creative team behind the stage production. Filmed in Sheffield and Doncaster, it features stars including Oscar nominated Richard E Grant, Sarah Lancashire, who won a BAFTA for Yorkshire-based TV series Happy Valley, as Jamie’s mother Margaret and BAFTA nominee Sharon Horgan as teacher Miss Hedge. The movie, which will be released worldwide via 20th Century Fox, sees newcomer Max Harwood take the title role of Jamie New.

The 21-year-old from Basingstoke who is still studying at acting school, was chosen ahead of 3,000 who applied for the open casting call. Following a year’s search for Jamie’s classmates via regional casting calls, 20 young people from Yorkshire and the surrounding regions were cast.

The film’s director Jonathan Butterell, writer Tom MacRae and composer Dan Gillespie Sells said: “Who would have thought when Jamie Campbell first put on his prom dress, that eight years later we would have brought together the best of British and Irish acting talent to tell his story.

“As well as launching a brand new star in Max Harwood to play Jamie himself, we’re so thrilled to welcome Sarah, Richard and Sharon to the Jamie family. Now the party’s really getting started.”

Producer Mark Herbert from Warp Films added: “Warp Films are absolutely delighted that Richard, Sharon and Sarah are joining the Jamie family, and we are so excited that after nearly a year of searching we have found our Jamie New - we can’t wait to start this journey with Max and to share this film with the world.”

Dan Bates is excited to see the film, which he believes delivers on several levels. “It has been huge, huge. It is a £17m production, that’s £17m coming into Yorkshire to develop this. “And they have really included that Sheffield community. There is a street party scene in the film and 4,000 people were invited to turn up without an audition! It makes me really proud for Sheffield.” He says the success of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was the start of a more ambitious approach by Sheffield Theatres that has literally put it on the world stage. “If we could do a show of that scale then we knew we could do more - we have been bolder.”

Since then there have been world stage premieres of books turned films including Life of Pi and The Last King of Scotland as well as Flowers For Mrs Harris and Standing At The Sky’s Edge created by Sheffield musician Richard Hawley and set in the city’s now rejuvenated but once austere Park Hill estate. “No other theatre that I know of has that amount of new work,” says Bates proudly. “People want to work with us and invest in our work. There is an absolute sense of pride in helping put Sheffield on the map.”

Bates says he thought that certain references to Sheffield might be removed when Everybody’s Talking About Jamie transferred to the West End. “But they didn’t, they still included the snooker (the World Snooker Championship which has been held at the Crucible Theatre every year since 1977) and certain places in Sheffield, including Parson Cross, no one knows that unless you’re from Sheffield!”

He is looking forward to welcoming back Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for a three-week run in February with some performances already sold out. “It’s amazing how it touches your heart, there is such a strong feelgood factor,” Bates beams with pride. And after the return of the stage show, there is the Hollywood movie to look forward to.

“It will have its premiere in Los Angeles and then a week later in the UK,” says Bates. Could that be in Sheffield? “We are hoping!”