LONDON — The story of Jamie Campbell, a young homosexual boy from Sheffield, England, was first told in a 2011 BBC documentary. Campbell, who was then 16, invited the production company Firecracker Films to follow him around as he prepared to go to his school prom dressed in drag.
Since then, Jamie’s story of self discovery has gone on to be translated into a musical, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.” The production stars the 25-year-old John McCrea, a new name to watch in the West End, who has created his own version of Jamie with an emphasis on the vulnerability that comes with being a teenager in search of one’s identity. Speaking to a wide range of theatergoers, who are likely to remember what it’s like to be a confused teenager with big dreams, the play quickly became a rapid-fire success, going from a small production in Sheffield to the stage of the Apollo Theatre in London.
Here, McCrea talks to WWD about the importance of supporting new British theater and contributing to the ongoing social and cultural conversations around gender and identity, through his work.
WWD: Tell us about the process of discovering the character of Jamie and making it your own.
John McCrea: Our character is called Jamie New because he’s the new Jamie. He’s a 16-year-old boy from an estate in Sheffield and everything that he is as a person is very centered around the community he is growing up in. His ambition in life is to be a drag queen and his way of telling his peers, his naysayers, his family about it is by going to his school prom in a dress. The most important thing about the character, that he’s 16, he’s not a child, not an adult and trying to work it all out. He gets some bad advice on the way and it sort of catapults him to becoming not the nicest teenager. He can be obnoxious, just like any 16-year-old.
WWD: How do you relate to Jamie?
J.M.: On paper when I read the script, he did some stuff that I didn’t quite get, being only 16. What I came to realize is that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he’s a compassionate young boy. We have that in common, but I think that he perhaps craves the spotlight in a way that I don’t.
I try to learn from the characters I play and he does teach me a lot about the importance of having compassion for others, following your dreams and challenging the status quo.
WWD: Did meeting the real Jamie Campbell influence your performance?
J.M.: I had already figured out my Jamie before meeting him but what I did focus on taking from him were references of physical aspects of him, like the way he moves, the way he stands, the way he uses his hands. He is quite a physically intriguing person to watch, because he is quite tall and quite slim.
WWD: The show touches on very current social and cultural conversations arround gender and identity. What is the main message you are aiming to communicate through this new production?
J.M.: Just self-acceptance, that’s the universal theme of our show. It’s about acceptance of others, acceptance of yourself and being authentic.
One of the most exciting things about the show is that this is a message that is hitting the zeitgeist. When we first started in 2014 for the first time, it wasn’t there at all. I think that these conversations will be happening more and more. We need to be constantly educating ourselves and discussing gender and identity because these are topics that are always changing, there’s no set of rules that we can apply. Hopefully they are not just having a fashionable moment.
WWD: Is that why the play has such a universal appeal?
J.M.: Yes, the niche aspect of the drag is what we focus on the least in the show. What we are highlighting are more universal elements that everyone can relate to: being 16, trying to work out who you are and having a dream but not being sure how to make it happen for yourself. It’s not a story about Jamie coming out and it’s not a story about him falling in love — it’s about him finding and accepting his real identity. We happen to be focused on him, but if you look at any of his peers, they are struggling with the same issues.
WWD: The story of Jamie was first told through a BBC documentary and you then did various workshops in Sheffield, before coming to London and the West End. How has the show evolved along the way?
J.M.: I think the production itself has stayed the same but the character of Jamie changed dramatically. In the first workshop, he was a lot more self-assured, he had a lot more sass. It’s slightly harder to sympathize with someone who seems like they have it all together. So we started exploring his vulnerable side more through the text and the music, because it was there to begin with.
WWD: Is the exposure that a West End stage gives important to you?
J.M.: The more people we can pass on the message to the better. This is also a wonderful piece of new British theater, which I think we have all been craving for a long time. I hope that one of the many positives that will come along is that its success will encourage new writers to keep on working really hard.
WWD: How do the costumes help you get into character?
J.M.: My character is actually in his school uniform a lot of the time, there aren’t many drag elements. But talking of costume and how it can influence the way you act on stage, it’s interesting to see that as a group of actors, when we are in warm-up we are all acting as relaxed 25-year-olds but as soon as you put us in a school uniform, it gives us that strange 16-year-old energy.
Then I have a wonderful costume at the end and a very beautiful prom dress. It was important for me to have a say in creating the visual side of Jamie through the costumes because style can only come from a personal place. I’m hoping that if Jamie carries on after me they will let the person taking over do their own thing with the costumes.
WWD: How does the dress at the finalé symbolize Jamie’s journey?
J.M.: He is first given a dress that’s not very him, but he’s young and easily influenced so he puts it on.
He starts with a red pair of shoes with really high heels, then he gets a red dress, everything gets bigger and more colorful and there’s feathers and fascinators. But when we get to the prom, when he figures out who he is, he chooses a very plain white dress. That’s the visual representation of his journey. He’s almost like a painter exploring throwing paint on a canvas, getting messy and working out who he is. He then strips it all back, which is quite beautiful.
WWD: Do you enjoy the increased attention from the fashion world, following the exposure you got from this role?
J.M.: It’s an interesting world, it’s subjective like theater, there are no rules. Who doesn’t like dressing up and feeling great? Our show talks a lot about what clothes, or shoes, or makeup can do for a person. It’s all really informative to who you are. I love to see industries form a relationship with one another; theater, fashion, music are all really heavily intertwined and influence each other all the time. We should all work together and celebrate being artists.
WWD: What are your plans after the show?
J.M.: I’ve been so spoilt creating a role without any templates, I would love to do it again I would also really love to perhaps do a play without music. The singing aspect of a musical is very hard work, it take a lot stamina. Also in a musical a lot of the text is very sparse because you have to really explore most of the themes in the music, so I would be really interested to take those moments and use just speech. I don’t really watch a lot of musicals as an avid theatergoer I watch a lot of plays and would love to give it a go.