Palace Theatre, London - 13th June 2009 - 7.30pm
The critic Michael Coveney in The Independent moans that he doesn't know who this show is aimed at. Well, obviously not you dear. Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert is certainly one of those shows that the sniffier critics will look down their nose at for not quite being to their particular taste. Coveney's review reeks not just of snobbery but of an intolerance, bordering on homophobia, towards entertainment aimed at gay men which dares to describe their often painful search for, and rediscovery of, friendship, family, love, life and sequins (he describes the reunion between main character Mitzi and his young son 'sick making') and he clearly doesn't get the, or any, joke at all. All I can say is that he and his fellow detractors must have had an entertainment bypass when they went to see this because there is enough spectacle, extravagant musical numbers, bawdy humour, genuine warmth and just sheer hard bloody work to make even the most miserable raise a titter or tap their feet.
...what took them so long to realise that Priscilla was ripe for stage adaptation?
Based on the the 1994 film written and directed by Stephan Elliott, itself a splendid slice of camp musical excess and gay affirmation, the musical unites Elliott with director Simon Phillips, writer Allan Scott, original film costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, renowned stage designer Brian Thomson, the most experienced choreographer in Australia, Ross Coleman and award wining musical director Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy. The big question is, what took them so long to realise that Priscilla was ripe for stage adaptation? Many critics have observed that its timing hasn't been perfect, crowding into a West End already bursting with so called 'juke-box' musicals. It's a moot point but personally I welcome the eclectic juke-box of a generation of discerning and not so discerning gay men and their straight hangers-on that spans Gloria Gaynor ('I Will Survive' natch) to the likes of La Traviata, Petula Clark, Donna Summer, Jerome Kern and the film's own soundtrack oddities such as Charlene's 'I've Never Been To Me'.
A tour de force of design, lighting, costume and performance.
What brings this to life is the gob-smacking production and costume design. If you've a bent for glitter, sequins and satin whipped up into truly outrageous creations then I think you'll find the 500 costumes here enough to seriously invoke a camp overload; including outfits that reference everything from cockatoos, lizards, paint brushes, cupcakes, the Sydney Opera House and cowboys. It truly is a feast for the eyes as each set piece tries to better the next. The Priscilla of the title, a bus in which the three companions travel across Australia, is fully realised both inside and out, moving clevery across the stage. In a particularly humourous scene it's via some very odd sounding place names whilst managing to run over one of the Queen's corgis and leaving her Maj giving the other three queens two fingers. There's a magical transformation sequence when the bus breaks down and it gets a face lift that decorates the entire prop with hundreds of tiny bright pink lights. A paint job undertaken to Pet Clark's 'Colour My World' with the show's ensemble of players dressed in Marie Antoinette style dresses that look like big paint brushes. It's certainly not subtle but at the same time it fits emotionally and joyously with the upbeat tone of the song. A tour de force of design, lighting, costume and performance.
...in search of the identity, humanity and purpose that we all crave
The show opens with Mitzi (Jason Donovan) dragging up ready for his/her lip-synching to the aforementioned Charlene song, effectively ripping the piss out of the painfully corny lyrics. After a lukewarm reception from bored clubkids, he gets a call from his ex-wife. As in the film, Mitzi is on a path to be reunited with a son he's never seen whilst also doing a favour for his wife at her Alice Springs casino by 'putting on a show' with transsexual friend Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and new recruit Felicia (Oliver Thornton). The first half of the show shifts from a surreal funeral for Bernadette's partner Trumpet, straight out of La Dolce Vita, hilariously coupled with 'Don't Leave Me This Way' and a joke left out of the original film about the said deceased's foreskin being big enough to stretch over a biscuit, then to a show stopping presentation of 'Venus' by the impossibly buffed Oliver Thornton, oozing sex and seduction across the auditorium.
The threesome, bitching and sniping at each other as the bus encounters the various denizens of the outback, are indeed broad stereotypes of the LGBT community, each in search of the identity, humanity and purpose that we all crave. It's that recognition of our selves that makes this such a guilty pleasure. Thornton's lip-synching to La Traviata whilst perched on the roof of the bus in a huge high heeled shoe will leave you agape, almost shell shocked from the ridiculous, camp spectacle of it all whilst Tony Sheldon brings an amazing depth and warmth to Bernadette and Donovan articulates well Mitzi's crisis of confidence at the dawning realisation that he's a father.
In the second half, Bernadette and company have bumped into Bob who fixes the bus and brings them back to opal capital of Australia, Coober Pedy. Bob's thinks the troupe will go down a storm locally but he hasn't bargained for his Thai bride Cynthia. Kanako Nakano steals the show briefly as much as Cynthia's antics outshine the three drag queens. It's an arresting sight watching her grind her way through M's 'Pop Muzik', with an emphasis on 'pop' as ping pong balls spring from various orifices out into the audience. When the bus arrives in Broken Hill, Felicia ignores Bob's warning to stay in the bus and prepares for a night on the town. Oliver Thornton is quite possibly the sexiest man I've ever seen in a pair of tights. The sight of his perfect arse gyrating to 'Hot Love' will live with me to my dying days.
'There. Now, you're fucked.'Felicia's recklessness leads to a gay bashing that is thankfully resolved by Bernadette, who, egged on by one of the bashers, Frank, to fuck him, kicks him in the bollocks and wryly observes, 'There. Now, you're fucked.' The film's message about homophobia is retained here and seems as current as ever when here in the UK, whilst we may think we're safe and sound, the violence against gay men is still a serious matter with a number of disturbing high profile cases in recent years. In its own sweet way the show and the film wants us to be who we really are but also to understand the potential consequences. Some people simply won't tolerate you. The journey continues with yet another storming musical moment. After Bernadette woos Bob outside the bus with a huge cake and champagne, consequently falling asleep in said cake, Mitzi more or less reads the audience's collective wishes and sets in motion a version of 'MacArthur Park', complete with an ensemble dressed as cupcakes wielding very tall umbrellas. This thundering number is so effervescent and thrilling whilst also bordering on the barmy and surreal.
The date in Alice Springs is made, the show goes on, Mitzi meets his son Benjamin (a very tender scene played out to 'Always On My Mind') and Felicia finally makes her/his dream come true ('a cock, in a frock, on a rock') when all three of the troupe spectacularly mount Ayers Rock and lead us into the frenzied finale. A warm, often hilarious, extravagant, crowd pleaser, this is all too much to take in on one viewing alone and deserves repeated attention from an enthusiastic audience. If you enjoyed the film then this betters it a hundred fold for sheer spectacle and showmanship. Thornton is a revelation and definitely a star waiting to be born, Donovan is thoroughly likeable even if by the second half of this performance he was visibly tired and Sheldon is an absolute diva, exuding charm and charisma. It's a slickly choreographed show, exhausting and bewildering in its technical complexity, and the staging and design is wonderfully inventive and creative, full of eye popping madness. An utter delight and one of the best evening's entertainment I've had the pleasure to witness.
Images courtesy and copyright Tristram Kenton. Many thanks.
Cathode Ray Tube Priscilla Queen Of The Desert Palace Theatre Tony Sheldon Jason Donovan Oliver Thornton