How teenage drag queen inspired Sheffield theatre director to create hit West End show

Layton WIlliams (Jamie) and the Ensemble in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo credit Johan Perrson
Layton WIlliams (Jamie) and the Ensemble in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo credit Johan Perrson

In the wig room of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, amongst the brushes and glue, three men hurriedly wrote the plot of what has gone on to become one of the West End’s smash-hit musicals.

They had just three hours, before catching a train to London, to pull together the storyline and persuade the then artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, Daniel Evans, to commission them to create their show.

Three years later Everybody’s Talking About Jamie played to sold-out audiences during its debut three-week run at the Crucible in February of 2017.

And the show, which is now in its third year at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, is returning to its Sheffield roots, when its 2020 UK tour commences at the city’s Lyceum theatre next month. “Sheffield has very much taken the story as its own, as it should,” says producer Nica Burns.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: Sheffield musical that became West End hit to be turned into a film

“We couldn’t think of starting on the road anywhere else. We all hope over the years we’ll keep going back to Sheffield and this is something the city should be proud of. This is ‘made in Sheffield’, in very big words.”

Jamie and Margaret Campbell. Photo: Darren Bell

Jamie and Margaret Campbell. Photo: Darren Bell

Theatre director Jonathan Butterell is the man behind the musical. His inspiration was the story of Jamie Campbell, who in 2011, was the focus of a documentary that aired on BBC3.

The then teenager, from Bishop Auckland in County Durham, decided to disclose his secret ambition to become a drag queen by attending his school prom in a dress.

Believing his story should be shared with the wider world, he contacted various production companies to capture the journey on camera.

The result was Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which followed Jamie and his mother Margaret as he created his alter-ego Fifi la True.

“I caught the documentary by accident,” writes Butterell in the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie programme.

“The story of a boy wanting to go to his school prom in a dress and all the challenges he faced on the way had elements of a classic fairytale.

“That was the simple part. What moved me and inspired me to create a musical was the story of the boy and his mum and the working class community they come from, which is at the heart of the piece – very similar to my own childhood on a council estate in Sheffield.”

A small intervention by West End star Michael Ball brought Butterell together with lyricists Tom MacRae and musician Dan Gillespie Sells, lead singer of The Feeling.

The two aspiring musical theatre writers had asked Ball for advice and after performing for him, it was suggested they contact Butterell who had a story idea but no songs. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I thought it was a really nice, alternative version of a hero story, a story of a certain kind of bravery,” Gillespie Sells says. “And a story of a really lovely relationship between a boy and his mum as well.”

The trio only watched Jamie’s documentary together once before creating a dramatised portrayal of his tale. Jamie’s surname was changed to New, the setting shifted from Durham to Sheffield – where the show was to be created – and characters were invented as Jamie’s classmates.

The end result was a musical following a teenager as he overcomes prejudice, beats the bullies and hits the spotlight.

The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells on creating a new musical for Sheffield

“It never ceases to surprise me how many people connect with the story and from all these different backgrounds,” Gillespie Sells says. “Everyone’s life is so unique but there are certain hurdles we have all had to overcome and I think we recognise that in Jamie. We recognise ourselves in him somehow.”

Though they had agreed to its production, the first time the Campbells saw the show was its opening night in Sheffield.

“It was so raw,” Margaret recalls. “We cried, we were just choked. It was like watching our life on rewind.”

“We initially thought it was going to be a community centre-type thing or a school project,” she adds. “We didn’t think it was going to go to The Crucible. And then obviously off to the West End.”

From seeing it that first night in Sheffield, Jamie says he knew it was special.

“I knew it was going to go far. But I didn’t realise how fast and how big it was going to go. It’s mind blowing.”

Burns, the co-proprietor of Nimax Theatres, which runs several venues in the heart of the West End, travelled to Yorkshire to see the show after reading its raft of positive reviews. “It was fantastic. The audience was packed and we had grandmas next to grandchildren clapping away at the end, everyone smiling.”

After the curtain went down, she sought out verdicts from the ladies queueing for the loo. “Everybody was indeed talking about Jamie and everybody loved it.”

Burns tracked down Butterell there and then and offered to produce the show in London. “That’s a very big offer. He was really cool. It was a bit weird,” she jokes. “Then a bit of time later, someone snuck me a video where he went backstage and said well guys, Nica Burns came, she loved it and we’re going to London. They’re all saying ‘woooo’.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie heads for big night out at 500 cinemas

The musical opened on the West End in November 2017. At its heart is the close bond and fierce love between a mother and son. “People think this is a drag musical but it’s not really,” Jamie says. “The drag takes a back seat. It’s the relationship between me and mum that’s so heavy. I think that’s what gets a lot of people as well. I’ve had such amazing support from her always.”

“It’s strange for us because people say we’re an inspiration,” Margaret adds. “We don’t see it as that, our relationship to us is just normal...Other kids come up and say to us that their parents don’t accept them or they’ve been thrown out and it’s sad. I can’t understand why they would do that. Jamie says ‘mum, I realise how lucky I have been that you supported me’.”

She is proud of her son for his positive message – believe in yourself and do what you want to do.

“It’s not just about being a boy and wanting to wear a dress going to prom,” Jamie says. “It’s about so much more. It’s about having a dream and going for it and I think that’s what people connect to... Stop pleasing other people, you’ve got live for you.”

Jamie is now using the power of his story to inspire young people by running workshops to promote acceptance, diversity and self-confidence. When he first discovered his drag persona, he says he only felt comfortable and confident as Fifi. But that is now starting to change.

“Fifi was his mask and his armour and nobody could get through that,” Margaret says. “As Jamie, he didn’t love himself as much. But with this, and seeing the love people have given, he’s started to accept that Jamie is as good.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie begins its UK tour in Sheffield on February 8.

The musical will also run at Leeds Grand theatre in July.