It’s fair to say what most theatre audiences want right now is escapism. After one of the worst years in human history, is anyone really in the mood for a night of Ibsen? Only if it’s got sequins. So a jukebox musical based on the The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – one of the most purely enjoyable films of the nineties – seems like a box office proof idea.
The original film depicted an unexpected clash between two very different cultures: macho, beer drinking Aussies and a trio of ostentatious drag queens. The sight of 60’s hetero icon Terrence Stamp dressed as a woman was a big draw, particularly when he had so many good put-downs: ‘Listen you mullet, why don’t you set fire to your tampon, it’s the only bang you’re ever going to get’, being one of the most memorable. The plot then: Tick/Mitzi (Edwin Ray), and headstrong Felicia/Adam (Nick Hayes), persuade bereaved transgender woman Bernadette (Miles Western, particularly excellent), to join them on a cross-country odyssey. Travelling in a restored single-decker bus they nickname Priscilla, their destination is a casino resort in Alice Springs, where they have been booked to perform their drag act. Along the way, the trio encounter vast landscapes, narrow minds and kindly helpers. We also discover that Tick/Mitzi is bisexual, and once enjoyed a relationship with a woman; she’s waiting for him in Alice Springs, as is the son he’s never met.
Most touring shows have to think small when it comes to sets and costumes; at the end of the week, all of this stuff has to be loaded into a lorry, and driven to the next town. So total respect to the work done by the technical team. Phil R Daniels creates a series of simple but quietly opulent sets, including the bus itself, which swivels sideways to reveal a homely drag queen living space. For the finale, he conjures up an effective facsimile of Ayers Rock, a place Felicia/Adam has always wanted to visit (‘Just what we need’, sniffs Bernadette, ‘a cock in a frock on a rock.’)
The lighting, by Ben Cracknell, impressively conjures up the shifting colours of the Australian outback, using mostly secondary colours (pink, purple, and lilac). Charlie Cusack-Smith deserves to have his name on the posters for his superb costumes: I can’t recall the last time I saw a musical number featuring iced bun dresses. Some of these costumes appear only fleetingly, like the wonderful black feathery outfits worn by the funeral mourners in Act 1.
There were plenty of songs in the movie but what’s different about this stage production (which once starred Jason Donovan, now a producer) is the disco factor, cranked up to the max in a series of high energy production numbers.
Musical director Richard Atkinson and his talented band keep the pace, and the hits just keep on coming: ‘Boogie Wonderland’, ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’, Ce Ce Peniston’s ‘Finally’, ‘Hot Stuff’ … there’s even a few slowies to change the mood (‘The Morning After’, a syrupy ballad from The Poseidon Adventure, is an odd inclusion but it works). Director Ian Talbot and Choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves are obviously having a ball on this show, as are the ensemble. Generally, professional dancers tend to be of similar height and build, so it’s refreshing to see a musical which goes against that: Priscilla features a diverse selection of performers, of different shapes and sizes.
This clearly is deliberate, and feeds into one of the show’s themes – tolerance and acceptance. Priscilla doesn’t shy away from addressing the persecution many gay and transgender people experience: during one scene, the chorus hold up cards which read ‘F**K OFF FAGGOTS’ (done without words or music). As Executive Producer Mark Goucher writes in his notes: ‘We must shout the message of Priscilla as loud as we can.’
Priscilla has something important to say, but does so with a cheeky smile, and a wiggle of the hips. Flamboyant and bursting with fun, it’s feel good theatre with a capital F.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert The Musical UK Tour is at The Palace Theatre, Manchester from 11-16 October 2021.
Read our interview with Jason Donovan.