Priscilla Queen of The Desert

Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott
Mark Goucher, Jason Donovan, Gavin Kalin, Matthew Gal, Laurence Myers, Nullarbor Productions and MGM on Stage
The Palace Theatre, Manchester

Priscilla Queen of The Desert Credit: Darren Bell
Priscilla Queen of The Desert Credit: Darren Bell
Priscilla Queen of The Desert Credit: Darren Bell

As the lights dim, an announcement requests all wigs be removed to prevent blocking the view of the stage. It is a cheerfully cheeky way of introducing a flamboyant production of Priscilla Queen of The Desert.

It is a good ten minutes before the musical gets around to introducing the slender plot. Drag artist Tick / Mitzi Mitosis (Edwin Ray) conceals a secret: he has a wife and child. At the insistence of the former, he agrees to go and meet the latter. To cover the cost of the trip across Australia, he decides to put the band back together and recruits trans artist Bernadette (Miles Western) and drag artist Felicia (Nick Hayes) who do not get along. Inevitably, the journey, in a battered old bus named ‘Priscilla’, exposes the trio to both prejudice and hope.

The original film upon which the musical is based was part of the ‘road movie’ genre which uses travel as a metaphor for the spiritual journey undertaken by the characters. In the musical version of Priscilla Queen of The Desert, the plot is used as an excuse to string together a set of disco hits. Little effort is made to justify the contrivances by which the songs are introduced—Nick Hayes does not even pretend there is a reason for performing the hammy "MacArthur Park". Hard to understand why, but there is even an excerpt from La traviata.

The musical is a celebration, rather than an exploitation, of drag / trans culture. The costumes by Charles Cusick Smith and Phil R Daniels are so over-elaborate as to stray into fantasy but at the same time have a tacky, homemade sense. The smutty introductory number by Miss Understanding (Kevin Yates) gives a reminder of the cheerful vulgarity that can arise in the drag clubs.

There is even a discussion on the relative values of live singing and of lip-syncing to songs. The musical offers a practical demonstration of the latter—a trio of Divas (Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease) stalk the stage like a Greek chorus providing stunning vocals that neatly cover up the occasional mimed section by the cast. Miles Western’s over-dramatic mimed song is a comic highpoint.

Although the musical is relentlessly bright, director Ian Talbot does not shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The bars depicted are squalid and a boozy celebratory group turns, in a chilly moment, into a potential lynch mob. Yet even the darker aspects are delivered with style and wry humour. Bernadette’s husband passed away after accidently inhaling peroxide fumes while dying his hair. The funeral scene to the tune of "Don’t Leave Me This Way" is choreographed by Tom Jackson-Greaves in a darkly flamboyant manner. A dance routine has troublemakers stumbling grotesquely around the stage like the cast of "The Walking Dead".

Disco is not a subtle form of music—its attraction is that it is an instant lift to the spirits and an insistence that one enjoy the dance. Which pretty much sums up the appeal of this production—it looks like Priscilla Queen of The Desert could stay on the road for some years to come.

Reviewer: David Cunningham