Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Milton Keynes Theatre, England
The publicity guff states that this “iconic hit musical has more glitter than ever, featuring a dazzling array of more than 500 award-winning costumes, 200 headdresses and a non-stop parade of dance-floor classics.” And when the starring role is taken my old mucker Joe McFadden, he of Heartbeat, winner of Strictly Come Dancing and a London chum of mine for almost 15 years, how could it not be a fabulous night of riotous campery?
I was already undergoing some much needed family time when Priscilla racked up in September. Milton Keynes, concrete cowtown, new “city” of trees, grid streets and innumerable roundabouts, is where I spent my school years and where my parents still live, though admittedly they’re in one of the pretty old villages they built the town around. Me? I found the place as boring as hell. Consequently, this would be my first show at the MK Theatre, which, like a lot of the ever expanding urban sprawl, cropped up long after I’d left and moved back to London.
Being quietly confident a musical about coarse and cutting drag queens wasn’t quite my dad’s thing, I took mum along for the ride, September 30 being opening night and Joe having organised a pair of rather swanky seats.
Having seen this production at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney in 2018, Priscilla is, in fact, only the second stage show I’ve ever seen in two different countries; the first being Mamma Mia, which I also caught the same year at the same venue, for the first time since the fifth anniversary gala performance back in London’s Soho in 2004.
While Mamma Mia is the ubiquitous ABBA song-based blockbuster that became a movie, Priscilla is the antipodean film world’s campy classic that’s become the crowning achievement of Australian commercial musical theatre. Unlike the cinematic version, however, ABBA’s Swedish songwriting half, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus, now refuse all requests licence their songs for theatrical extravaganzas. The clue’s in the words Mamma and Mia, dear.
No Abba? No problem! Just replace the Swedes in this recipe and stir in three legendary ladies to the pot: Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? and Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer more than satisfying the American soul quota. Those chintzy Charlene and Vanessa Williams songs have also been trashed, and in their place an exuberant trio of ‘70s chestnuts later popularised by seminal synth duo, the Pet Shop Boys: Always On My Mind, Go West and I Will Survive. Add a smattering of a local pop pixie called Vylie Minogue and you have a delectable disco inferno of dance floor favourites that shakes everybody grove thang, mine included.
The revised set list ups the tempo of the show and brings a newness to the 25 year-old story. And as ferociously funny as I remember 2009’s London adaptation (replete with inevitable Kylie and Neighbours jokes, it starred Jason Donovan, who now is the producer of the 2019 rejig), seeing Priscilla sashay in on home turf was really something. For those that may be unfamiliar with the Oz plot, the story follows the trio of drag queens at different stages in their lives as they make their way from Sydney to the Australian outback to perform in small town Alice Springs. Or as one character famously puts it, “a cock in a frock on a rock.”
Remember this rip-roaring scene?
That central premise is essentially a gay road movie, a concept inherently difficult to translate to the stage. Commendably, Brian Thomson’s bus concept design cleverly delivers its vehicular leading lady and the show, as a whole is a brilliant beast in subject matter, production values, colour, movement and cast. Thirty-something Tick (that’ll be Joe McFadden then), the central protagonist, is joined by cocky young pup Adam/Felicia (Nick Hayes) and elegant older transgender and former Les Girls star Bernadette Bassenger (a perfectly nuanced Miles Western).
Tick uses the agreement to help his wife Marion (Miranda Wilford), the owner of the Alice Springs Casino, as a cover to finally meet his young son Benji. Cue a riot of themes and colours, classic one-liners from the film propping up the action between musical numbers. In reference to performing, Felicia, the show’s ultra-camp leading Queen asks: “Why do we do it, night after night, copping abuse?” to which the wisened, fragile Bernie cracks: “So we can feel like real women” and Buckinghamshire’s sympathetic audience hoots and simpers. Incidentally, the role of the ping pong ball was played by itself.
The cast’s kitschtastic costumes were breathtaking in their scale and gravity-defying inventiveness (three aerial divas make repeat, dazzling appearances throughout the show), though one should expect nothing less, given Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner bagged Oscars in 1995 for best costume design on the film. The outlandish outfits also help reinforce the story, such as an ensemble of dancing cakes, and ensure that the audience remembers that this is an Australian journey through the blazing colour of bee covered wattle and koalas and cockatoos perched aloft in trees.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is often lewd but mostly light-hearted with a wink at much darker subject matter; from the paint brush dresses in Colour My World, through to the probably-racist depictions of Indigenous, Asian, German and Scottish/Irish (it’s interchangeable) tourists visiting Australia’s red centre. Priscilla doesn’t shy away from the ridiculous, and at times narrowly skirts the realm of dated and charmless.
All in all, an absolutely fabulous, frivolous festival of razzle dazzle that has its diamante-encrusted heart in the right place. At its core, once groundbreaking but still brilliantly acidic LGBT musings on life, love, gender and ageing. And if you’ve ever wanted to see every part of white Australian culture satirised, soaked in colour, sexualised and given its own sequinned costume, look no further than this exhilarating homomade spectacle. It’s Priscilla ‘ere.
On a personal note, mum enjoyed it too, though not being the most social bunny in the world, when I asked if we could hang behind for an after-show drink with Joe I was told in no uncertain terms, “Your dad’s picking us up. He’ll have already left the house.”
Never forget you’re some mother’s son, eh?
As we’re already here, a few other theatre productions I thoroughly enjoyed in 2019 were:-
All About Eve and The Night Of The Iguana, London Noël Coward Theatre
Witness For The Protection, London County Hall
Musik, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Closer To Heaven, London Above The Stag Theatre
My Beautiful Laundrette, Leicester Curve Theatre (above)
Muriel’s Wedding, Melbourne Her Majesty’s Theatre
Tuesday, Sydney Belvoir Theatre
The Rise and Fall Of Little Voice and I’m With Her, Sydney Darlinghurst Theatre
BONUS: We are the campions?