Photos: Darren Bell
Many of the best contemporary musicals celebrate aspects of otherness. As with this production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, currently touring the UK, The Rocky Horror Show, La Cage Aux Folles – and most recently, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – all feature cross-dressing and non-conformity. Yet if these shows wear their hearts on their sleeves, they do so in such a diverting way that the message often hits home when you least expect it to.
Based on Stephan Elliott’s 1994 Aussie road movie about two drag artists and a transgender woman who take their cabaret act into the Australian backwoods en route for Alice Springs, Priscilla was a surprise hit which soon became a cult classic. It was only a matter of time before screenwriter Allan Scott was to re-imagine it as a life-affirming stage show. The musical opened in Sydney in 2006, before being staged on Broadway, in London and in capital cities throughout the world. The programme note says: ‘the film landed slap bang in the centre of drag’s first golden age,’ and indeed the public have taken this quirky story and all that it stands for to their hearts.
There’s a sequence towards the end when Felicia, one of the drag queens, is attacked by a group of sinister rednecks as she tries to entertain them. Although there have been previous moments during the show when the trio have experienced unpleasant homophobic reactions to their act, this number starts innocently enough; then with a start, you realise that on this occasion things are going to turn really nasty, that even in these liberal-minded and politically correct times, people who refuse to abide by perceived social norms can still be made to feel unaccepted. Today more than ever, with right-wing populism on the march, minority groups are once again in danger of being undermined after years of growing tolerance.
For most of its two plus hours, however, the show lobs a rainbow-coloured smoke bomb at bigotry, kicking – or in this case happily lumbering – over the traces in Priscilla, the pink panelled bus. And there are some gentle, even tender moments. The balance between the upbeat, gaudy production numbers and the quieter, more sensitive moments is nicely judged.
Rather than an original score, the musical version fleshes out the slender story with some of the best torch and other well-loved songs of recent times. If you’re concerned that Priscilla is just another jukebox show, be reassured. As well as paying tribute to the great pop singers of our times – including gay icons Madonna, Kylie, Tina and, of course, Gloria – all the numbers work in context. Some such as Colour My World come over especially well, as do the quieter solos such as Say a Little Prayer. A surprising, but well-executed aria from La Traviata, provides a melodic contrast to the pop riffs and tempos too.
Joe McFadden slips confidently into Donovan’s high platform shoes as Tick (Mitzi), the married man now separated from his wife. When she asks him to do her a favour and provide an act for the Alice Springs casino where she works, she also reminds him that he hasn’t seen his young son. Tick’s conscience thus pricked, his decision to agree to her request kick-starts the story, leading him to recruit Bernadette and Felicia (Adam) and purchase the eponymous bus. McFadden, possibly best known from his role in Holby City and as the winner of the 2017 Strictly, also gets the chance, to demonstrate his excellent comedy and singing skills, previously aired in How to Succeed… and She Loves Me at Chichester some years back, and in other shows.
But this is an ensemble piece, and McFadden is ably supported by Miles Western as Bernadette, the transgender and, arguably, most complex and interesting member of the act. Western acts with touching sensitivity beneath a waspish, self-defensive front. In the second half, Daniel Fletcher provides Bernadette with touching romantic interest as the seemingly macho mechanic, Bob.
There’s another strong – and glamorous – performance from Nick Hayes as Felicia, whilst Rosie Glossop, Claudia Kariuki and Aiesha Pease work hard as The Divas, a backing group of girls who, along with everyone else in the eighteen-strong cast, are constantly changing roles and dresses. As one production number giddily follows another, you wonder how they ever have time to get their breath back! Special mention should be made of Jacqui Sanchez as Cynthia, Bob’s wife, who brings the house down with a hilarious dance and ping-pong ball-popping routine.
Jason Donovan, a star of the London production, is one of the producers of the tour, so it is artistically in safe hands. If anything, I felt the years of work on Priscilla since I first saw the show at the Palace Theatre, have only continued to oil her wheels. Indeed, this incarnation of the vehicle seems slicker than ever. The producers are well served by veteran musicals director Ian Talbot and the choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves, who keep the show constantly moving. Every spare bar of music and scene change is covered by some comic or interesting business to hold our attention.
The versatile stage design and many outrageous, over-sequined costumes and headdresses are by Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels. The show is beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell.
At the end of the evening the packed Monday night house rose to its feet. They’d been given what they came to see, with interest, and had loved every minute. And, if you get the chance to see the production, so will you!