PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 18th March, 2013
I first saw the stage musical adaptation of one of my favourite films in the West End; I was delighted to see Jason Donovan reprise his role as Tick for this touring production. For those that don’t know (and Welcome to Planet Earth) the plot involves two gay men and a transsexual travelling in a bus (the titular Priscilla) from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform their drag act at the casino/hotel of Tick’s ex-wife. We follow their adventures and misadventures along the way, meet a cavalcade of outlandish characters and generally have a gay old time.
The show keeps many of the film’s best elements, notably the Oscar-winning costume designs (the dress made of flip-flops, for example) but also fleshes out the dialogue in some places and bungs in a few extra songs.
What elevates the show above other ‘jukebox’ musicals is the story. Songs from the film’s soundtrack are used judiciously to develop the plot or reveal character, rather than the lazy shoehorning of an artist’s back catalogue that you get with so many of these things. This show has heart – most of it comes from Jason Donovan’s character, as the gay man worried he won’t be able to be a good father to his surprise six-year-old son. But also you can’t help loving Richard Grieve in Terence Stamp’s iconic role as Bernadette the ageing transsexual. Grieve brings grace and elegance to the role, knowing when to lower his vocal register to butch up for a scathing putdown or filthy punchline. The third in this trash-talking trio is Graham Weaver as young Adam. He gives us a show-stopping performance of a medley of Kylie Minogue songs – This is a deviation from the film that doesn’t sit well with me: the characters’ obsession with ABBA has been swapped for a Kylie fetish. I’m guessing this is to avoid clashes with hugely successful jukebox show Mamma Mia!
Bernadette embarks on a hesitant relationship with mechanic Bob (Giles Watling) when he shows up to mend Priscilla’s engine. Their scenes are genuinely touching – the show needs to balance out its depiction of straight people after the parade of redneck horrors. Grieve and Watling make a lovely couple. Frances Mayli McCann as Bob’s Vietnamese wife Cynthia is an hilarious, grotesque cameo, whose party piece with Ping-Pong balls makes your eyes water. Properly tear-jerking though are the moments between Donovan and his son Benj (played by the very sweet Oscar Francisco in the performance I saw). These scenes are touching without being mawkish, showing that children won’t grow up to be homophobic unless you teach them to be. Donovan is in good voice (and shape) and is matched by the rest of the company in this energetic and uplifting production.
The company is impressive. Stand-outs include Alan Hunter whose turn as Tina Turner is literally staggering, and Ellie Leah as backwoods barmaid Shirley whose boobs have to be seen to be believed!
There were a few technical issues – it was the show’s first night at this venue: videos jamming, props going astray – but nothing obtrusive to mar my enjoyment.
For all its glitz and glamour, the show recognises that homophobia is still very much with us. It’s not all sequins and champagne, darlings, but the emphasis is on fun. It’s a positive view, a life-affirming view, and an exhilarating night at the theatre.