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London Theatre Reviews

Ph: Alastair Muir

PROM QUEEN

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

This story of a 16-year-old who wants to be a drag queen is heavily derivative of other recent musicals.

Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and they’re over-praising him. Or rather, they’re over-praising the show he’s giving his name to. Yes, its heart is emphatically in the right place, it offers a cornucopia of feel-good emotions, and there’s no doubt that you’re rooting all the way for its teenage hero to fulfil his dream of becoming a drag queen.
 
But, although it’s based on the true story of Jamie Campbell, who in 2011 fearlessly and spectacularly attended his school-leaving dance in County Durham in full drag, I somehow felt I’d seen it all before. Let’s face it, bucking prejudice and accepted standards of behaviour in the provinces is hardly groundbreaking territory. Most recently, it was the fulcrum of on which Calendar Girls swung, the driving force behind The Full Monty and of course personified by Billy Elliot, whose ethos it seeks to replicate.
 
On this occasion, County Durham becomes Sheffield, and as 16-year-old Jamie New (John McCrea) and his coed classmates prepare for life after their final term at school, their immediate futures loom large. What Jamie wants, ultimately, is to become a drag queen. More immediately, though, he hopes to attend the school-leaving prom wearing a dress. He succeeds on both counts, but not without a struggle.
 
Rejection from his estranged father (Ken Christiansen), obligatory bullying from an equally homophobic classmate (Luke Baker) and a refusal from his basically sympathetic head mistress (Tamsin Carroll) to wear a frock at the prom, makes him even more determined to succeed.
 
Fortunately, he also has his supporters – especially his understanding mother (Josie Walker), his best friend Pritti Pasha (Lucie Shorthouse) and Hugo (Phil Nichol), an ex-drag queen who, in his heyday, performed under the name Loco Chanel. It’s Hugo who tells his protégé, “A boy wearing a dress is someone you laugh at; a drag queen is someone you fear.”
 
Though the book and lyrics by Tom Macrae (music by Dan Gillespie Sells) has its fair share of one-liners and some good observations (“don’t wait for permission to be the person you are,” Jamie is advised), it borrows liberally from several other musicals. A trio of drag queens is the stripper equivalents from Gypsy, and the first half closer in which Jamie makes his debut at a local drag venue echoes Gypsy Rose Lee’s debut in the same musical. In Act Two we’re told Jamie was the sensation of the evening, though given the build-up to the occasion, isn’t it a bit odd we never actually see him perform? Not only that, but neither do we ever see him creating or rehearsing the act. It just happens overnight, fully formed and out of nowhere. Really?
 
Several other musicals are referenced. There’s a Follies moment when Hugo’s younger self materialises and performs in his prime. We get a nod in the direction of La Cage aux Folles when Jamie sings his version of "I Am What I Am" (called "Ugly in This Ugly World"). And straight out of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying we get the same visual gag in which two of Jamie’s classmates fetch up at the prom wearing identical dresses. The Kinky Boots references are pretty obvious. And the Billy Elliot echoes reverberate all over the place. The best number in the show, "He’s My Boy" (wonderfully sung by Walker), about the warts-and-all love she feels for her son, is a variation of "(He’s Just) My Bill" from Showboat.
 
The generic score is awash with infectious toe-tapping rhythmic beats, but you’ll be hard-pressed to hum a single bar of any of it. The lyrics (what I heard of them through the rather strident sound system) are serviceable, as are Kate Prince’s choreography and Jonathan Butterell’s energised direction.
 
In the title role, lanky McCrea, who, like all the youngsters in the class, struck me as too mature to be playing a 16-year-old, makes up in some really sensual body language what he lacks in vocal heft. He works hard and gets there in the end, but only just. Though Jamie is unequivocally gay, his sex life (if, indeed, he has one) is never even hinted at.
 
Jamie may enjoy being a girl but, it’s the genuine females in the cast who give the strongest, most endearing performances in this well-intentioned but derivative musical. That said, the audience loved every second of it and gave it a standing ovation.