The extraordinary thing about entering Soho after a long time between drinks is that you forget how long it is since you were away. The embrace of being at home once more erases all memory that you haven’t been back in a long time. The draw on this occasion is of course, the very same reason I have lived, celebrated, written and sung about Soho for so long – the fight for inclusivity.
After an excited telephone conversation last week with one of Soho’s greatest champions and bona fide theatrical taste makers, Nica Burns, it would seem that Nimax theatres now have their very own living work of art that heralds all that Soho represents in the fight for inclusivity, diversity and acceptance – a new musical called ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ that I watched tonight at The Apollo Theatre. Cunningly, the piece traverses the potential edgy challenges of it’s story by making it’s message indisputably and exquisitely universal. You may hear upon the vine that the musical is about a drag queen. It is, but that’s not all. This is a story about family and bravery. It is about individuality and the right to express it no matter what the cost. It is Louise’s Gypsy Rose Lee, it is Sally Bowles and yes, it is often Billy Elliot – but always utterly it’s own original story of transformation and coming of age, all portrayed with heart stopping charisma by John McCrea. It has also returned to the West End the powerful archetypal tale of a mother’s love for her son with the kind of depth only explored before in Willy Russell’s’ Blood Brothers (lest us not forget how long that particular show ran for). Jonathan Butterell’s bold and sensitive production could do the same.
Nica Burns and Tim Arnold
That ‘Jamie has opened on the edge of Soho is absolutely perfect. When speaking to BBC News in my first interview about Save Soho two years ago, the bewildered reporter asked me “Yes, but what are you trying to save Tim?”. And I told her then as I still tell many people today – the right to belong. That is what we want to save. In Soho, and in every corner of the world. Soho has always been the beacon for anyone who felt they could not belong in their own town, and thus moved to live or work in Soho – creating, over time, the most creative and inclusive square mile in the world. And wouldn’t you just be ever so surprised to know that one of the featured songs by the excellent Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae in ‘Jamie is all about belonging.
I have not returned to Soho since our great friend and pint sized bottled spirit of the place – Bernie Katz passed away earlier this year. I have avoided my place of belonging for fear of noticing his absence, along with so many other treasures I value that have been singed at the edges. And yet tonight, I can promise you that the spirit of Soho was there in full. It’s fairly rare for me to invest my attention in anybody else’s musical work because I am so contently absorbed in my own on a 24/7 basis. Why look out at today when there are still numbers by Sondhiem that have not been dissected and devoured? I think Bowie and Duchamp may both have made valid arguments in concentrating on your own art and never be distracted by what other artists around you are doing. Mostly they were right. In this case though, I am breaking the rule. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is probably the most important new British musical to hit the West End since Oliver! It’s form is of our times and it’s heart is that of a classic. I am thrilled and privileged to have been there at the opening.
Tim Arnold and Zoe Wannamaker
Obviously, beyond the musical, the entire evening was poignant to me (let’s face it, I rarely write after midnight unless I’ve had the most memorable experience). Emerging from the stage door as I left… my one, my only Electra – Zoe Wannamaker, crept out in Vivienne Westwood style pantaloons and a cheeky grin. We hadn’t seen each other since New Years Eve in 2010. She was the first person I ranted and raved to about the musical before we said our goodbyes and both disappeared into the rain soaked cobbles of Rupert Street. We were both blown away.
After a short walk through the rain deciding which route to go home, I waited in the doorway of Bar Italia for a pizza (which Dorian gave me free of charge as their card machine was broken) and between the age old fumes I have known for so long of toasted coffee beans, melting mozzarella and the perfume of fresh basil, I watched a couple on the other side of Frith Street locked in an impossibly long embrace and passionate kiss of such delicacy, that…I took a photo of them. Since filming What Love Would Want this year, I freely admit to becoming a voyeur of romance. And why not?
The couple were utterly uninhibited, effortlessly full of freedom, without a care in the world, proud with love and an invisible spiritual shape that said ‘this is us’. It’s what I saw in ‘Jamie on the stage and it was now what I was watching on the streets of Soho. Beauty and bravery.
Pizza arrived. So did the uber. The driver said “What music do you want on? You can play your own if you like?”. Alone finally, in the darkness, my mind turned to something, or somebody else, and I elected to play the theme from Cinema Paradiso. However, when I get home, I shall be searching for the soundtrack of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. And I recommend you do the same. After you’ve seen the show.