In anticipation of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie coming back to The Lowry, I had the chance to sit down for a heart to heart with John Partridge (EastEnders), who plays Hugo (aka drag queen Loco Chanelle). We discussed all things Jamie, the Northern experience, cooking, and LGBTQ+ representation.
You’re a Northerner as well, aren’t you?
J: “Yes, I’m from Radcliffe. I’ll put me Northern accent on for you.”
I’d love to start talking about what everybody is talking about… Jamie. So how did you feel when you were cast in the show?
J: “I was absolutely delighted. I saw this show when it first opened in 2017, and I loved it. I didn’t see it in Sheffield, I saw it in town when it transferred. I loved the show and instantly felt a connection with both the character of Hugo and also with the character of Jamie, because really, they’re kind of one and the same; there’s just 45 years between them.
“I think it’s so important right now to continue a conversation like that. We see, as queer people, our hard-won freedoms being eroded, and the fact that we get to take a musical like this around the country… a great big award-winning smash hit, can’t-get-a-ticket0-for, musical around the country feels like activism. It feels political. There’s no bigger political statement I feel right now as a queer person than being your true, authentic self.
“And that’s what this story is about at its heart. It is about inclusion. It is about diversity. It is a journey of self-discovery, not just for Jamie, but for everyone that’s involved in that story. For the mother, for the best friend, for Hugo, for his classmates. It’s a story of self-discovery for everyone. It’s a story of ‘What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be you?’ So the fact that I get to be a part of that conversation right now, the fact that I get to come to my hometown and kick off this tour, and then I get to take it back to London to the Peacock Theatre, it feels like a full circle moment.
“I connect with Jamie a lot in the sense that I started my professional career at 16; I went into cats in the West End at 16. So I know what it’s like to be a young person that isn’t necessarily fully-formed in the identity that you finally end up in. I mean, I’m not even sure what that is. I think that our identity continues to evolve, but I understand what that means. I also understand what it means to be Hugo, Loco, somebody that’s very much middle-aged, still queer, but not quite sure where I fit in or go, or what that means. So for me, it feels like a really important story both personally and professionally.”
So for anyone that doesn’t know what the show’s about, how would you describe it, and who is your character?
J: “So the story focuses around a young person called Jamie who is working out who he is and his place in the world. Jamie wants to be a drag queen, and he’s not entirely sure what that means and how to do it. He chances on meeting a man called Hugo who has a shop, Victor’s Secret. And he comes into the shop to get styled for prom. He strikes up this relationship with Hugo. Hugo tells him his own personal story about how he became Loco Chanel, and Jamie is set off on this trajectory to go to prom in a dress and everything that’s around that. And so it’s really Jamie’s coming out in many ways… not of his sexuality, but his drag coming out, the birth of his drag persona, Mimi Me.”
“And that’s really at the heart of the story, and the relationships through that, be it how the father reacts, how the mother copes, how his school friends react. And so it really does pull that mirror up to what that means not just for Jamie, but how everybody else fits in to that picture coupled with an amazing score by Dan Gillespie, brilliant songs, beautiful writing. The book of this show is so well-crafted. The dialogue is so well-crafted.
“I’m going to dumb musicals down since I’ve made a career out of doing them: sometimes in a musical when you can’t really express yourself, they burst into song. But in this musical, what the songs do is actually underline the text. It doubles down on the book, and that’s what makes this musical so great.”
“Some musicals and operas and sung-through and there’s very, very little dialogue. And listen, great classics are like that, Rogers and Hammerstein and those sorts of, but this is a play and a musical. You could probably take all the music out and just have the book and vice versa. So it is very much on a parallel, the music to the book. And that gives you that double whammy. That’s what makes it so impactful because it just keeps topping, topping, topping, topping, topping. I probably shouldn’t say topping, topping, topping on a gay story, but there you go! There is some bottoming, bottoming, bottoming, bottoming as well. So for everyone, tops and bottoms!”
“So what’s been your favourite experience so far in Jamie?”
J: “So I’ve not started rehearsals yet. I’ve got a costume fit; I got a lovely call from the costume manager just to go in for a little measure. She said, because we need to talk about your padding. And I was like: “Wow, here we go. We’re going”! I have done drag once before, and I did a show here actually called La Cage Aux Folles, which was a totally different thing. And then I did play Marilyn in Boy George’s Taboo, which is kind-of drag, but it’s not really as it’s also kind of more punk.
“This obviously is somewhere in between because I get to sort-of be me and then I also get to dress up and I kind of look at them as two different people because they are so different. So I think that’s what I’m looking forward to the most. This will be like my roughly my 25th musical, and when you’ve done a lot of them and you’re playing one part, eight shows a week, night after night, that can become a little pedestrian sometimes (not that I’m not challenged by these roles).
“But with this, I get to play two people. And so I’m really looking forward to having that real change, being able to make Loco a real surprise. And that for me is the best thing about this piece. I get to sort-of be two people, because in essence that’s what drag is, and in essence you’re allowed to be who you can’t necessarily be as your alter ego, so I’m really looking forward to exploring that and examining that.
“But when I go back on Monday, I’ve got my first costume fitting for my padding, which I was kind of like, okay, let’s see how that goes, especially with the heels. I know what it’s like wearing the heels and it ain’t fun! But a heel, it must be! It can’t be no kitten heel for Loco; she’s got to wear the full stack.
“But rehearsals, they’re always the best bit. They’re the bits where you can make mistakes and explore. And that’s the playground element of being an actor, that school out for summertime. So I’m really looking forward to that. Once you actually get on the road and they’re doing it every night, that’s when it’s a marathon. That’s when you’ve got to just bite down and look after yourself. So the fun bits now, which I’m looking forward to, the grind of the tour is the bit where I got to behave and get good.”
How long is the tour?
J: “I think the tour is 42 weeks. I do half of it. So I share the role; I’m doing the nice dates, the Manchester dates, the northern dates! And then obviously I get to go home and do the London dates. But yeah, it’s really special for me to be able to come home and do this show here because people sometimes forget that I’m a northern lad because people know me from being Southern (EastEnders) or talking in a telephone voice. So people are always surprised that I’m actually from here, but it’s really important to me. But all the Partridges will be here, the whole clan. They were like: ‘Make sure you book 15 tickets in front’. I’m like: ‘Normal people just say, I want two, three,’ but [they] want 15 for Friday, and 30 for the Saturday. I’m going to be broke!”
Do you feel like there’s any pressure from the fact that it’s also have a real story as well as a movie?
J: “Yes. I mean you are talking about somebody’s life so it’s not fictitious. I think you have to respect that it has to be authentic because this is a true story. But like I said, because it’s a true story, it’s all there on the page. It’s real. And I think that’s what makes this story so compelling. It’s not a fairy-tale, it’s not a Disney character. There is a happy ending-ish, but it’s a bittersweet ending as not everything is reconciled or determined, as in life. This show does show the good, the bad, and unfortunately the ugly…
“People always ask me, since I’m 52 now, ‘How far do you think we’ve come as far as telling queer stories?’ And the honest answer, not that far. Sure, we have more rights, but as we see right now, those rights are questioned. We have this story now that somehow drag has been dragged into gender identity. Somehow the conversation about drag queens has become about something else entirely, about some sort of grooming or perversion. Drag queens can’t read stories to kids at school.
“And the funny thing is, I was doing some research other day, I was looking for stats on drag queens that have either been arrested or criminalised for some form of sexual deviancy, and you can’t find any because drag queens are not out for your kids. If you want to look, you wouldn’t find any. If I’d tell you what you do find stats on, it’s not drag queens, but it is clergymen or it is religion or lawyers or policemen. There are all these other professions where you’ll find a whole heap of stats. You won’t find any stats on drag queens. Hashtag, not a drag queen. That’s the truth. I’m not even a drag queen, and that pisses me off. It’s a lie [and] misrepresentation. It’s what we do to distract from what’s actually happening in the world, and I know that your listeners or your readers are not that stupid. So it’s up to you guys to dispel that and get rid of that conversation, and I’ll help you when I can.”
I’d love to talk a little bit about your background. You’ve got a massive portfolio in acting and wow
J: “I’m old, that’s why!”
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
J: “Oh god, that’s such a hard question. It’s all been quite organic for me. It’s like your children; I love all my children equally. Some jobs have been blissful because my life has been blissful. Some jobs have been painful because my life was being painful. And I’ve been through many things from sobriety to addiction and back again, and loss and all of those sorts of things. So I think the highlight of my career is the fact that I’m sort of sitting here and talking to you and still working. I will always be a jobbing actor. That’s what I am first and foremost. I don’t take anything for granted. That’s maybe not always been the case, but with age comes a tiny bit of wisdom. But I’ve loved them all equally, from my first job to my last job and all the bits in between”.
That’s a good political answer as well! So did you always dream of being an actor?
J: “I dreamt of being a dancer. That’s what I wanted to be; I wanted to dance. That’s all I wanted to do when I was a kid. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. My dad was 51 when I was born, and it’s funny because that doesn’t seem old now. My dad passed when I was very young, and I always feel that I didn’t really know my dad, and I was a bit embarrassed about that, but the irony of that is obviously now I’ve just turned 52, and when I’m looking in the mirror trimming my nose hair because they’re growing everywhere, he’s looking right back at me, and I find something extremely comforting about that.
“And quite importantly, he would sit me down in front of the old black and whites, so I had no idea at five who Kevin Keegan was, but when Cherice came on the telly, I knew exactly who she was. And that’s when my love really for everything MGM and musical was born, and that was my trajectory as a kid: I just wanted to dance. And that’s really what I did going into Cats at 16, and then it just evolved.
“But yes, it is always what I wanted to do, and I’m very lucky in that I see so many young people now who don’t know what they want, but I knew from I knew from being really small. So I try to encourage people now to try to find that, try to generate that. Because once you get to being that age, you can be pulled in so many different ways that it’s difficult to know what to do. It’s hard to find a passion. But mine was already there. It was planted inside me. I didn’t have to go searching for it. So, I was lucky. It’s a gift from the heavens, from the gay gods!”
So, I believe you also created an album and a book!
J: “Yeah, I’ve done lots of records. I have a new record coming out. I’ve got a new cookbook coming out”. (He won Celebrity Masterchef in 2018).
“I still love the cooking and sausage rolls, and pies (I’ll always be a pie boy). But actually, I’ve just moved into a new house. I’ve got no kitchen right now, so it’s like take out, but I’m sick of Chinese, but that is my go-to along with Indian. So I that kitchen needs to be made. That’s why I have to go out, slack it around the road in the heels for a bit to pay for the kitchen. It’ll be the kitchen that Jamie bought!
So what’s your favourite sweet treat? I’ve got to ask!
J: “I don’t really have a sweet tooth; I’m more a savoury person. But my husband is Canadian, and they have something in Canada called Butter Tarts. They’re a little bit like an open Eccles cake. So it’s a pastry bottom and the filling is sort of raisin, cinnamon and loads and loads of brown sugar, but it’s open so it’s not got a top on it. That’s probably my favourite sweet treat, or anything with hazelnut. Hazelnut mouse. Hazelnut is amazing.”
Mmm you see, it’s anything chocolate for me!
J: “Seem I’ve never been a chocolate person. I’m always crisps over chocolate. I’d always go for crisps rather than chocolate. My mother was really fattist [weightist]. I remember I opened the door once, hadn’t seen her for 18 months and she was like, ‘You’ve got fat!” straight away. But whenever we were kids, when we were allowed to have chocolate, [it] was only one square. So I never got bit by the sugar bug.”
Do you have any other hobbies or hidden talents?
J: “I guess things people don’t know me: I’m fluent in German since I lived in Germany for about 10 years on and off. So I’m fluent in German and in French because I trained at Paris Opera for two years as when I did my training at the Royal Ballet School, I did an exchange program. So I guess that’s what people maybe don’t necessarily know… I’m not just a stupid actor!”