Chris Eldon Lee reviews Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 1st February 2014.
The trouble with reviewing a show like this is that if I use all the superlatives under the hot Australian sun that it deserves – you might struggle to believe me. So I have found one four-letter word to do the job for me. ‘RIOT’.
‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the Musical’ is a riot of colour, costume, cabaret, cliché and campness. It is so cleverly created and stupendously well presented it’s impossible not to fall for it, big time, whatever your persuasion. Despite it’s constant overt sexuality, I could easily have taken my granny to see this show – and she would have had a ball.
Sydney is, apparently, the drag capital of the world. But three ‘show girls’ have had enough of the big city and decide to head off, on a bus called Priscilla, 2000 miles into the virgin desert; to “Go West” – where no drag queen has gone before – in search of what the Arts Council would today term ‘new audiences’.
Put simply, it’s the 1994 road movie done live on stage…but the showmanship is so superb the theatre version leaves the film standing on the starting grid. The preset is a lipstick drawn map of Australia (the pink dots presumably marking the location of all England’s winter defeats) and then it’s less than 10 seconds to the fastest glitter ball in theatrical history. Thereafter, the glitz, grind and glamour are relentless.
The classic disco songs are musically and vocally excellent – but they’re so riddled with gay gags that listening to “Boogie Wonderland” and “It’s Raining Men” will never seem the same again. Gloria, Petula, Barbara and Kylie are all treated mercilessly – their prize songs brilliantly destroyed forever by routines so cheesy and costumes so utterly outrageous, Busby Berkeley would need smelling salts. There are dancing cakes, cactus and koalas; in fact a costume for every Australian cliché imaginable – including an amazing three-man representation of Sydney Opera House. Some of the wigs are so enormous the wearers had to hold them in place whenever they went round corners
Yet there is poignancy in the music too. Aretha Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer” is so touching when sung by a man putting on his make up. And there’s a whole new sentimentality unveiled in the lyrics of “MacArthur Park”.
Amidst all the slap and tickle, Richard Grieve shines as the veteran “Les Girls” artist Bernadette, searching for true love. His whole demeanour is so exquisitely observed he holds the mature, calm centre of the entire extravaganza with grace and humanity.
The chorus line is packed with people obviously selected for their extraordinariness. Ellie Leah is devastatingly funny as the Broken Hill barmaid with uncontrollably bouncing boobs and Frances Mayli McCann sacrifices every shred of her oriental inscrutability as the outback mechanic’s lap-dancing Philippine wife. Her cameo performance is five ever-memorable minutes of bonkers bizarreness.
I could go on, but actually this is a show that really has to be seen to be believed. It’s an absolute hoot from start to finish and – if there is a moral tucked in there somewhere – it’s simply that it really does take balls to be a drag queen.
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