PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017
Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce. It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.
Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel. Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout. Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus. Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover. They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on. There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story. And quite right, too!
Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company. The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!
Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say? But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun. What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon. The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.
Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch. As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs. You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock! Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.
There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out. A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact. On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.