WHEN a documentary entitled Drag Queen at 16 was shown on BBC Three as part of their season about young people with amazing stories to tell, few thought that a 16-year-old who wanted to attend his school Prom dressed in drag, would provide the seeds for a successful stage musical and film.
That is not only what happened, but the stage version, in the four years since it made its debut in Sheffield, has developed a strong cult following.
They turned out in force at the Bristol Hippodrome, to cheer it to the rafters, from the first muddled opening scene – the sound set had not settled making it difficult to follow the exchanges between sharp-tongued school mistress Miss Hedge (Lara Denning) and her final term pupils, to Layton Williams (as Jamie) milking his final solo bow like a latter-day version of Sir Donald Wolfit.
The high drama as Jamie races head-on into battle with the prejudices and bigotry surrounding his desire to become a Drag Queen, makes the happy-ever-after ending a bit hard to swallow. That aside, the clash of characters keeps the audience fascinated throughout proceedings.
On the one side, Jamie’s allies are headed by his self-sacrificing mother Margaret, as played with tremendous sincerity and depth of feelings by Amy Ellen Richardson – a match for Mother Courage or any other mother in classic literature. She lives off scraps to ensure Jamie has his desires, including a pair of sparkling red high heeled shoes. Her two solo numbers If I Met Myself Again and He’s My Boy were the vocal high spots of the evening.
When Jamie storms out after discovering that his mother has been lying to cover the fact that his father despises him, you felt like dashing up on stage taking the ungrateful little begger by the throat and shaking some sense into him. And also pointing out that in Ray (Shobna Gulati) his Mum’s feisty neighbour and Pritti Pasha (Sharan Phull), a schoolfriend who had to fight her own battle with racial abuse in order to try and become a doctor, he had two more strong loving supporters. When presented with a vocal challenge It Means Beautiful, Sharan Phull was another not found wanting.
Hugo, the owner of the local drag shop who takes Jamie under his wing, is the other great influence on his life. It’s a role, particularly when reminiscing in song about his own career in drag, The Legend of Coco Chanel that can be overplayed with disastrous consequences, but in the experienced hands of Shane Richie this was never an option. Always completely in control this was a perfectly judged characterisation.
Something else under fine restraint was the band under the direction of Sam Coates. When I realised that they were on stage, behind screens high above the set, I feared the worst … vocals overpowered by a wall of sound … but that was not the case as they provided ideal support for soloists and chorus alike.
Slickly staged, this production never lacked pace and with very few exceptions, managed to keep the mixture of serious themes, high comedy, and often vocally dramatic content at just the right consistency.