REVIEW: Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Manchester Opera House ✭✭✭✭

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert UK Tour
I Will Survive. Photo: Paul Coltas

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert
Manchester Opera House (On Tour)
25 August 2015
4 Stars
Book Tickets for the UK Tour

Take two drag queens, a transvestite, enough sequins and glitter to sink the titanic, put them together with a talented cast and a plethora of modern pop and disco classics in a big pink bus, and you pretty much have all the ingredients that make Priscilla a joyous night in the theatre.

Based on the 1994 film of the same name, Priscilla has become Australia’s biggest musical theatre export with productions in Canada, Italy, Brazil, USA, Sweden, Argentina, Phillipines, Spain and Norway amongst others. This tour will be the second tour of the UK, after nearly three years in the West End.

In its simplest form Priscilla is a road movie, Tick, a drag queen is invited by his wife to travel from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform a show at the casino she manages. Tick enlists the help of Adam/Felicia a young drag queen and Bernadette, an older transvestite and the trio set off in a bus they christen Priscilla. Tick is apprehensive about the journey because he is to meet his son for the first time when he gets to Alice Springs, a fact he has withheld from the other two. Needless to say placing three flamboyant individuals on a bus and sending them into outback Australia creates culture shock with the locals and provides the perfect platform for self-discovery, bringing the three together.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert UK Tour
Duncan james as Tick. Photo: Paul Coltas

Nine years after it opened in Sydney, Priscilla exploded onto the stage of the Manchester Opera House this week as part of its new UK tour.

This production sees Blue star Duncan James take on the role of Tick (Jason Donovan will alternate the role in some cities). It’s a role which requires a delicate balance between bravado and fragility, and for the most part James get’s the balance about right, although his physical build makes presenting the fragility of Tick a challenge. His moment in the show comes clad in lime green sequinned pyjamas, dancing with cupcakes singing Maccarthur Park which is a triumph.

Simon Green brings a softer side to Bernadette than previous inhabitants of the role. One of the most complex characters in the show, Bernadette is simply wanting to be loved. Green’s is a standout performance amongst the trio. Bernadette exudes style and class even under the toughest of circumstances. His tough exterior melts the further into the outback they get.

Adam Bailey plays Adam/Felicia, a young man who has exploded out of the closest and lives life at a frenetic pace without worrying about consequences. Bailey’s Felicia is a wonderous display of youth, like a comet burning bright as it blazes across the sky, he is fearless.

Priscilla uses three fabulous divas often suspended high in the air to provide the singing voices for the lip synching drag queens when in their drag personas. Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort are superb, a heady mix of soul that brings a new dimension to some of the great disco classics in the show.

Callum MacDonald gets the job of warming up the audience and firmly setting the tone of the evenings as drag queen Miss Understanding. His banter with the audience is tongue in cheek establishing the bitchy rapport of a drag queen perfectly and his Tina Turner is a delight.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert UK Tour
Macarthur Park. Photo: Paul Coltas

Suprisingly whilst on the road the truly grotesque characters encountered by the trio are women. Catherine Mort one of the Divas, also doubles as Shirley the bartender at a Broken Hill boozer full of red-necks. The character is pure stereotype with a mullet, poor hygiene and braless breasts creating a moment of pure comic bliss. Julie Yammanee brings a whole new dimension to Asian male order bride Cynthia. This incarnation of Cynthia comes with a new element that shows us that Cynthia may not be the talented dancer she thinks she is relying on her sexuality and a little act with ping pong balls to grab the attention of her male audience. Yammanee makes Cynthia one of the comic highlights of the evening providing enough comic fodder for a lifetime. You’ll never look at a ping pong ball the same way again.

Whilst en-route to the Alice, the trio encounter Bob the mechanic, an open-minded gentleman who has travelled the world looking to find a place to fit in. He is quick to befriend the unlikely travellers and forges a unique relationship with Bernadette. Philip Childs brings Bob’s blokey masculinity and gentle flipside to life, giving him a complexity and soul that you wouldn’t expect from an outback mechanic.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert UK Tour
Go West. Photo: Paul Coltas

The ensemble of Priscilla work especially hard through costume change after costume change to bring the camp fun of this musical to life. Their triumph coming at the end of Act one with the show stopping I Will Survive, one of the most joyous moments ever created in musical theatre.

One of the greatest things about the movie of Priscilla were the costumes created by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, costumes which would ultimately win them an Oscar, a BAFTA and an AFI award. All of the classic looks they created for the film have translated to the stage with quite a few more besides. Priscilla’s costumes are as wildly extravagant and fantastical as the concept of the story itself. Costume wise Priscilla is a visual feast that you will not soon forget, a whirling, swirling, gawdy parade of pop culture and drag that has to be seen, to be believed. Bravo!

I was surprised to see that in this touring incarnation Priscilla herself is back on stage albeit in a cut down version of the West End original. Putting a bus on stage that can manoeuvre like one of the show’s dancers, light up and perform on queue is no easy feat. Given that the show is named after her it’s great to see that Priscilla has returned in a more substantial form than on the last tour where a wire framed shell with led windows was substituted for the physical bulk of a bus. It’s good to have you back!

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert UK Tour
Colour My World. Photo: Paul Coltas

With so many good things to report it’s a shame that one thing let’s Priscilla down. The physical scenery for this show seems have been a casualty somewhere on the road to Manchester. The core of the Priscilla story revolves around the vast expanse of the Australian outback and the sense of isolation and self-discovery that comes from that. So much of this production is played in front of crimson curtains that this story loses its geographical setting.

I got the impression that creatives had designed the show thinking that everybody who attended had seen the movie, my companion on the night was one of those who had not. Whilst the physical locations where clearly delineated in the West End production on tour, the movement from place to place on the road got lost.

Sempre Libera which in the film saw the famous stiletto atop Priscilla with Felicia in silver body suit trailing a forty foot long silver train flying across the desert, is an iconic part of Australian film history. In the West end it saw Oliver Thornton suspended mid air above the audience lip synching lyrics which roughly translate to “live free and rejoice”. The heady visual imagery mixed with Italian opera was stunning. Now it is relegated to a bit of side business that no longer makes any sense and for Priscilla virgins makes no sense at all.

That said though, there is still a lot to admire with Priscilla, especially with this talent cast who bring to life the motely heroes of this fabulous road trip.

Priscilla really is the ultimate feel good musical. It has an abundance of humour with a load of heart.

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