Book: Stephan Elliot &Allan Scott
Director: Simon Phillips
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
The curtains open: a trio of belting divas, silver-gowned, donning chemical-red beehives, are lowered in from the ceiling—in grand WWE tradition—amid a swarm of urchin-clad, wildly gesticulating dancers, while the bands knocks out a rousing (snare-bashing, brass-blaring) rendition of Downtown. This is not the only time the divas descend from above, and the sets and costumes only get more eye-popping. And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s all you need to know.
Priscilla is a famously flamboyant musical, bursting with bigger-than-life characters in bigger-and-bigger costumes and a soundtrack of masterfully performed, immediately recognisable hits that never fail to get the audience clapping. This is the show’s appeal, the very thing that has made Priscilla such an international success—and director Simon Phillips’ production doesn’t disappoint. Big and brazen is certainly on display but, at its heart, Priscilla wants to be a more intimate incursion, a thoroughly modern ‘road movie’ as much about the big camp extravaganza as about accepting who you are.
In 1990s Australia, Tick, a.k.a Mitzi Mitosis, boards a rickety, glammed-out school bus—the titular Priscilla—with fellow ‘gender illusionist’ Adam (a.k.a. Felicia) and transsexual Bernadette, to perform a drag act in remote Alice Springs. Anything-but-subtle Priscilla sputters its way through the Australian hinterlands, leading the catty trio into predictable perils—sparked by deeply inbred homophobia—and unexpected, sometimes heartwarming affirmations. But underpinning the story—and all the glitz and pop—is Tick’s real reason for taking on the show: to meet, for the very first time, his eight-year-old son Benji.
But while this subplot prompts the action, it generally plays ugly step-sister to Priscilla’s camp spectacle. The glam definitely upstages the substance in this musical: and that’s okay. Priscilla is the type of show that, if watched with an uncritical eye, is just a big pink barrel of fun.
Jason Donovan gives a confident performance as Tick, made charming by a burbling twitter of a laugh and a genuine likeability. While his physicality isn’t always convincing, Donovan does a good job as the relative ‘straight man’ in a show dominated by hyperbole. Richard Astbury, in a last-minute call-up for Adam Bailey, is excellent as drag queen Adam (Felicia). But Simon Green’s Bernadette is the star of the show: he commands attention from the first and holds it unwaveringly throughout. Also deserving of mention are Callum MacDonald, for his performance as the hammy Miss Understanding, and Catherine Mort, one of the three talented divas, for her brief turn as genuinely hilarious bar matron Shirley. The band, as well, deserve mention for their flawless playing.
While as a story, and certainly as a substantial piece of theatre, Priscilla is unquestionably flawed, it also makes for fantastic entertainment—as evidenced by the throngs of theatregoers dancing in the aisles during the final number. Ultimately, Priscilla really is all about having a good time and, frankly, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Runs until 30 January 2016 | Photo: Paul Coltas