Book: Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott
Musical Director: Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy
Director: Simon Phillips
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
It’s hard to believe that Priscilla Queen Of The Desert first hit our screens 22 years ago. Since then the film has journeyed to the stage and now, once again, is on the road in the ultimate flamboyant musical.
The tale of three drag queens setting out across the outback of Australia in a clapped-out bus (the titular Priscilla) so one of them can meet his 10-year-son for the first time and another can climb Ayres Rock and be a ‘jock in a frock on a rock’ while singing a Kylie number may seem an unlikely plot. But the musical, powered by 30 floor-filling classics, seems such a perfect fit that you wonder why nobody had thought of it before.
For all its camp exuberance, though, this feel-good musical also packs a real emotional punch, never afraid to tackle the serious along withthe fabulous. It’s a clever ploy, the visual and musical delights soften the audience’s heart, so when the mood turns darker, looking at the pain of being on the outside of society, the message hits home hard.
That’s not to say Priscilla is a lecture, it’s far too much fun for that.
The glorious mix of outrageous costume and settings, only outdone by even more outrageous behaviour, is a winning one. We may know all the songs but they’re performed with such wit and ingenuity that they seem as fresh as the day written. They also fit so well into the plot that you often have to remind yourself that they weren’t written for this show. Hits such as I Say A Little Prayer, Colour My World (resplendent with dancing paintbrushes), MacArthur Park and Thank God I’m A Country Boy, just a handful of numbers given new life. The company are clearly having fun with the musical, the secret to any stage musicals success, but it’s never at the cost of story or character. Each line, each step, each flutter of the fabulous eyelashes precision placed to best effect for the show.
Leading the company are our trio of nomadic drag queens, Tick, Bernadette and Adam. It would be all too easy to overplay these already exaggerated creations but all three delve behind the OTT makeup and frocks to show the pain behind the smiles.
Simon Green’s Bernadette is a beautifully layered construct. The most seasoned of the three artistes, Bernadette struggles to come to terms with the changing face of drag and longs to find a man to accept her for who she is. Green captures all this in fine form; we get to feel the pride in past performances, the shame that comes from a less tolerant time and the loneliness of his alter-ego.Green’s rendition of Cyndi Lauper’sTrue Colours, transformed into a torch song, is one of the most moving moments on the musical stage.
Adam Bailey’s Adam is the other end of the scale. The onstage character of Felicia is the antithesis of all Bernadette stands for. Brash, crude and blatantly sexual, Felicia may be the modern face of drag, but behind the bravado is exactly the same fears and dreams that driveall three. Bailey’s performance is the surprise highlight of the evening. A whirlwind of non-stop energy, his physicality only exceeded by his vocal performance. Number after number is delivered with sheer perfection but his rendition of Kylie Minogue’s Confide In Me istruly spine-tingling, heralding a bright new musical star.
With two such strong presences, Jason Donovan’s Tick recedes somewhat by comparison. It’s a more understated performance than the other two but while that suits the character, the vocal side is, given his provenance, somewhat lacking. Donovan seems to strain to project the vocal power needed to convince, although his in-joke in response to the numerous Kylie references that he preferred Scott (his Neighbours character) shows he’s not afraid to make fun of himself.
There’s fine support from Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort as the three, chorus-like divas, belting out numbers often suspended high above the stage with their leading of the entire company in the defiant I Will Survive an appropriate Act One Finale.
The show concludes with the anthemic We Belong and it’s a suitable epitaph for a show that shows that being seen as different isn’t a reason for social exclusion. In Priscilla, it’s a message told with such unalloyed joy that it’s hard to ignore.
Runs until 13 February 2016 and continues to tour | Image: Paul Coltas