"Hit West End musical is my love letter to Sheffield," says director

Cast of Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
Cast of Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
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"It's a love letter to Sheffield," says director Jonathan Butterell of Everybody's Talking About Jamie which opened to a smash-hit run at the Crucible earlier this year and has now taken the West End by storm.

Jonathan, who grew up in Park Hill, got the idea for the musical from a BBC Three documentary about a 16-year-old boy from South Shields who has dreams of becoming a drag queen and is battling to be allowed to wear a dress to his school prom.

John McCrea (Jamie New) and Lucie Shorthouse (Pritti Pasha) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson (2)

John McCrea (Jamie New) and Lucie Shorthouse (Pritti Pasha) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson (2)

But Jonathan decided to shift the setting for the coming-of-age story to Parson Cross, an area he has always had great affection for since spending time there with his Aunty Joan as a boy.

He explained: "I knew the community spirit of that estate, I knew the pride of that estate, I knew the diversity of that estate."

"I wanted to write a piece that was about them, and for them. That was about the pride of that community," said Jonathan, adding: "We had 35 per cent new attendances when we did Jamie in February, and people had come from that side of the city and had gone back happy.

"It really felt like Sheffield had claimed it as theirs. It's about a really working class part of Sheffield, but it's still gone down amazingly well in the West End.

John McCrea (Jamie New) and Josie Walker (Margaret New) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

John McCrea (Jamie New) and Josie Walker (Margaret New) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

"I think the story really speaks to people," continued Jonathan who was worked as a director and choreographer on a whole host of productions on the West End, Broadway and Off Broadway.

The completely unknown musical sold out at the Crucible in February, almost on word-of-mouth alone. Not only is it drawing huge crowds at the West End right now, but Jonathan has also teased the possibility of the musical being given an even bigger platform by being adapted for film.

Jonathan, who worked on the choreography for several films including Finding Neverland, said: "We've had some definite interest, in that respect. And for me I'd like to see it being seen in Australia, Japan, all over the world, because I think it's a story that transcends borders."

Commenting on why he was compelled to tell Jamie's story, Jonathan said: "The documentary follows this 15-year-old boy who has the chutzpah to write to a documentary maker and say I want you to follow me round and tell my story.

Josie Walker (Margaret New), John McCrea (Jamie New) and Mina Anwar (Ray) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

Josie Walker (Margaret New), John McCrea (Jamie New) and Mina Anwar (Ray) in Everybody's Talking About Jamie Apollo Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

"The relationship between him and his mother is so beautiful. I thought this is a story that needs to be told."

Jonathan worked on the show, which has been described as a modern-day Billy Elliot, with writer Tom Macrae and lead-singer of The Feeling, Dan Gillespie Sells, who composed the musical's fantastically catchy score.

He says the show's creative team began collaborating after he got a serendipitous phone call as he was beginning to develop ETAJ from singer and actor, Michael Ball, who said Tom Macrae and Dan Gillespie Sells were trying to write a musical.

Jonathan said that while the documentary provided the basis for the story, he wanted to make it their own, so did not watch it again and tried to take the story further.

"In the documentary they weren't allowed to go into school with them, and we really wanted to tell that side of things, so we were able to create our own world in Parson Cross.

"We came back to Jamie and his mum when we'd finished, and when they saw the story they said 'how did you know' - because we'd got so much of their story right. So there was this amazing synchronicity to it."

The cast from Sheffield's incredibly successful run were moved over to the West End production, which opened at the Apollo theatre in November and is set to run until April next year.

John McRae plays the titular role of Jamie, whose performance, just like the production itself, has been praised across the board by critics.

David Jays of The Times said: "As Jamie, the terrific John McCrea has a peroxide do like his own personal spotlight. He’s a superstar in a Wonderbra, he needs more room for his va-va-voom."

While the story has at its centre, the story of a gay teenager fighting to be allowed to wear a dress to his school prom, Jonathan says there are a lot of themes within the production such as the difficulties of growing up, of friendship, of family, of both loving and aspiring to break free of your hometown that tell a much wider story that has something that everyone can relate to.

He said: "There's a bit of Jamie in everybody. Everybody's been 16, everybody's been at that stage in their life where they just want to find their place in the world.

"It makes people laugh, and I've literally watched grown men cry while watching it. It's for everybody."

"A bloke came up to me after the show in February, and referenced a character called Dean who's a bully in the show.

"He said: 'I was a Dean once, I'm not anymore, but I was'."