First there was Mamma Mia, the musical featuring the songs of Abba, which we took a long time getting around to see; but when we did finally catch it, we loved it. Then every other musical seemed to feature pop songs rather than original music, and that just didn’t inspire me very much as a theatregoer. Putting a story together where the action has to match a group’s songs that may have been recorded decades ago struck me as putting the cart before the horse. And one of the shows that was born during my “No Pop Song Show Thank You Very Much” period was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We hadn’t seen the film anyway, and the prospect of watching drag queens on a bus driving round the outback to an 80s disco soundtrack just didn’t do it for me; it felt both too surreal from a story point of view, and too unoriginal from a music perspective.
How wrong was I? I should have known better. I’d already realised that the use of Abba songs in Mamma Mia is incredibly inventive and adapts beautifully to an enjoyable original story; as an example, if either Mrs Chrisparkle or I are feeling downbeat because something sad has happened, the other one is bound to open a conversation with the words “Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong?” (If you haven’t seen Mamma Mia, 1) you won’t get that and 2) why not? Go this instant!) Similarly the use of established pop songs in Priscilla enhances the little ironies of the story and emphasises its comic or sentimental aspects. From the parental love of “I Say a Little Prayer” to the use of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at a funeral, from the soggy culinary disaster of “Macarthur Park” to the Ping-Pong ball possibilities of “Pop Muzik”, a lot of thought and inventiveness has gone into the structure of this show.
It also hadn’t occurred to me quite how funny it would be – not only from the comedy dance routines but also from the actual story and script, which is buzzing with jokes and brilliant observations. For instance, there’s a killer line that describes how the late character “Trumpet” got his nickname – and no prizes (but it works well all the same) as to which soap character Jason Donovan’s Tick fancied the most. The staging is smart, colourful and extremely camp, the costumes are way way way over-the-top and a hideous delight, the choreography is fast, funny and expertly performed, and the acting is of a very high standard indeed.
In a nutshell, Sydney-based drag performer Tick responds to a guilt-trip request by his ex-wife Marion (who manages a casino in Alice Springs) that he should take his drag act for a show at the casino and in doing so finally get to meet his eight year old son Benji. He enlists the help of two friends, transgender Bernadette (who used to be a star at Sydney’s “Les Girls”) and drag queen Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow). Together they take their pink bus named Priscilla on a trip to Alice Springs via such enlightened townships as Broken Hill and Coober Pedy. On the way they meet homophobic prejudice and violence, but also unexpected kindness and support; and it all ends happily ever after, with Tick reading Benji bedtime stories, and Adam achieving his ambition of climbing Uluru, so that he can say he’s in a frock on a rock with a c**k.
One of the things we both appreciated about the show, but especially Mrs C, who grew up in Sydney in the 70s and 80s, was the entertaining number of cultural references that we both could tune into. Old TV shows and characters get mentioned; the names of favourite sweets and drinks are recalled, and there are some fantastic pure Australianisms that you think surely no one would use any more – don’t come the raw prawn with me! But best of all was memories of Les Girls. When Bernadette meets Bob, she wows him with the fact she was once a Les Girls star, as he fondly remembers seeing the show (one senses several times) during his youth. Well how about this for a local reference – our first date (Mrs C and I, in her Miss Duncansby days) was at the self-same Les Girls. It was a tremendous revue, two shows a night, the later one being a little more risqué than the earlier; and at around midnight you went upstairs to a big disco ballroom between the two shows. The stage routines were full of glamorous women, none of whom were women; and with one poor chap called Shane if I remember rightly, and all he had to do was act as a foil to the glamour-pusses and do a strip. It was there that I had my first and only Faggot’s Finger. It was a cocktail. I’m sure you’ve got the measure of the place from my recollections. But it was real glamour – and it has a great place in our joint affections.
Priscilla is quite a surreal show in many ways, but I liked the way it did absolutely no scene-setting and made no apologies for what it was going to be. Right from the very start, it just got on with it. And it has a brilliant opening with a superb performance by Alan Hunter as Miss Understanding, doing a wonderful interpretation of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love got to do with it”. No disrespect to Mr Hunter but in a sense it works as a warm-up act, and boy does he get the audience going. The three divas, Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell, make frequent appearances in a number of guises and sing with fantastic gutsiness. Giles Watling makes a bemused and amusing Bob, an icon of tolerance in a prejudiced world, Frances Mayli McCann an outrageous and hilarious Cynthia, and, in the performance we saw, Joseph Jones a confident and cute Benji, who shows that prejudice is learned, not innate.
But it’s the triumvirate of big guns who absolutely make this show. Graham Weaver is a brilliant Adam, a spoiled, bitchy, over-confident know-it-all who’s just out to have fun and to hell with the consequences. He’s an excellent singer and dancer, and I predict a great stage future for him. Richard Grieve is extraordinary as Bernadette – he doesn’t play her, he is her; you can’t see the join between performance and reality. Probably the most convincing female impersonation I’ve ever seen, both very funny and very moving. And Jason Donovan is magnificent as Tick, an everyman/woman character at the heart of the show, going on a journey (that’s a “Journey”) not only from Sydney to the Alice but from a person with something missing in his life to someone with a purpose.
It’s one of the most feelgood shows I have ever seen, and we both loved it. It’s definitely a must-see if you can; unless you’re homophobic, in which case you will absolutely hate it.