Priscilla Queen Of The Desert – Review – York Grand Opera House
By Roger Crow, September 2017
I’ve not seen Priscilla Queen Of The Desert since it caused a stir in 1994, so my memories of the movie are pretty vague. Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce; billowing silver lame trailing from the top of the eponymous bus, and some outrageous costumes. That’s about all I recall.
I remember enjoying it, but felt it didn’t have the depth of that other Antipodean classic Muriel’s Wedding. However, when the chance arises to see the musical version, I think that’ll help ease those autumnal September blues, and my gut feeling is right.
In creating the book, director Stephan Elliott teamed up with Allan Scott to craft this foot tapping spin-off, and armed with a wealth of HI-NRG, old school favourites and camp Kylie classics, it’s hard to resist. Four years ago a touring version graced York’s Grand Opera House, and now this home grown production dazzles the masses. Obviously it’s made on a budget, but it scarcely matters.
Show director Nik Briggs does a terrific job of sustaining the interest as the trio of bitchy, camp protagonists go on the mother of all road trips.
It opens with the Three Divas (Lauren Sheriston, Jacqueline Bell and Joanne Theaker) belting out ‘It’s Raining Men’, while Richard Barker’s camp comic relief Miss Understanding intentionally wobbles around the stage in a Tina Turner style for ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ In case there was any doubt, this is not a show to be taken seriously. I half expect Berwick Kaler to turn up any minute, as it has that feel good panto quality.
The story orbits around Sydney drag queen Tick/Mitzi Mitosis (Joe Wawrzyniak). His estranged wife Marion (Jessica Hardcastle) from Alice Springs tells him he must put on a show there and see his son Benji, who, through circumstance, has been a stranger for most of his life.
When Joe sings ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, I get flashbacks to My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Rupert Everett’s scene-stealing turn at a dinner table. But that’s soon pushed to one side. So he quickly assembles an act comprising seasoned transsexual Bernadette (Alex Weatherhill) and lean, reckless hedonist Adam/Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Jacob Husband). Analysts would probably break down the characters as three life stages of one man, but this is not a show you need to analyse that hard, just like dissecting a gag makes it less funny.
There are plenty of sparks between the trio, and though at times the energy falters on the bus, it soon picks up again within seconds. So we get some great tunes, terrific singing and gobsmacking costumes. I can’t imagine Stamp, Weaving and Pearce would spend a stint on stage in York (their loss), so cast aside, obviously, the best bits from the movie have survived the transition.
My favourite moment arrives after a key protagonist’s romantic picnic by the side of the bus. There’s an iced green cake; the opening lyrics to one of my favourite songs have just been sung. But it’s not raining. Kind of crucial to the set up. ‘How on Earth are they going to get from point A to B?’ I wonder. For a couple of seconds I wonder if they’re going to bother at all. The cast and crew know most of the audience will know the song, and milk the tension before launching into a full on version of ‘MacArthur Park’, complete with supporting divas bedecked in cake-style attire.
It’s one of the most enjoyable stage experiences I’ve witnessed in years, and ramps the feelgood factor up to 11. So the story plays out and the trio of key characters go on their own emotional trips before standing on top of Ayers Rock (no papier-mâché mache props here, not that it matters. We fill in the blanks).
By the finale, the atmosphere is a pure party atmosphere, with the audience clapping along at all the key moments. It’s a terrific show which might not boast a huge budget, but it ticks all the right boxes where it counts. A great cast, fantastic soundtrack, stunning costumes and a big heart. And even if you have no one to go with, don’t worry. I went alone and loved every minute as the whole theatre turned into a big family party for a couple of hours.
Having seen some musicals which feature great actors overshadowed by star names or let down by dull songs, it’s a treat to see one that gels so well. Okay, it’s not perfect, few shows are, but the fact I could easily sit through the whole thing again is testament to its success. Highly recommended.