Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has had enormous appeal to audiences since the film came out 25 years ago and has continued to entertain theatre audiences in many venues across the world.
At its core, it has all the characteristics of a road movie, a journey into the heartland of Australia in a clapped-out old van, which reconciles the three protagonists to their own life experiences and enables them to deal with the often hostile reception they receive from bigoted local communities when they perform as drag queens.
The dramatic narrative, which is often poignant, is framed by energetic and entertaining song and dance routines to the popular music of the '90s in the inimitable style of drag performance.
The journey is prompted by a telephone call from Tick’s wife who tells him that his six-year-old son is longing to meet him. The marriage and child come as a surprise to his companions who have no idea about the earlier heterosexual relationship. While Tick and the much more flamboyant Adam are gay, the ageing Bernadette is a lonely transgender with little to look forward to.
The journey leads to early episodes of humiliation and violence from the redneck communities they encounter but these are balanced later in the action by individuals who are accepting and loving, and the misfortunes reinforce the growing friendship between the three main characters.
As Tick, Joe McFadden sings beautifully, acts with sensitivity and performs the dance routines with consummate professionalism. He does not seem particularly comfortable in the elaborate and often revealing drag outfits and when lined up with Nick Hayes (Adam) and Miles Western (Bernadette), who are experienced drag artists, he does not match them in blatant eyeballing of the audience or brazenly suggestive movement.
Hayes’s performance as Adam is riveting, acerbic and confrontational. Even on a crowded stage, he catches the eye, sings and dances with huge confidence and is particularly mesmerising in a scene in which he lip-syncs to an operatic aria. Western is equally raunchy in the set piece numbers but brings depth and sensitivity to the character of Bernadette with occasional vitriolic outbursts of articulate bitchiness.
The supporting cast and chorus, including Daniel Fletcher as a sympathetic Bob, swell the action with energetic dancing and full throated singing to an excellent orchestra directed by Sean Green.
The set needs to be adaptable and the clunky tour bus rotates to provide front and side views as well as an internal setting. Costumes are brightly coloured and tacky enough to suggest a small company on the road but often break out in a proliferation suitable for a large theatrical setting.
A full audience, largely comprised of women, sang along to familiar numbers and whooped and cheered with enthusiasm. I was reminded of the female audience at the end of The Full Monty who went along to be entertained and to laugh at the peformers. By placing the emphasis so strongly on entertainment, this production allows less opportunity for engagement with the underlying issues that inform the show.
Reviewer: Velda Harris