The Queen of the Desert rolls into town this week in the form of a Big Pink Bus, a talented company and a show to simply blow you away. There is nothing that quite compares with Priscilla.
If you spot one of those huge Paul Mathew trailers parked behind the Congress, you’ll know there is a major musical playing. If you see two trailers, it’s Priscilla. Big and brazen, the show has a fabulous extravagance about it: sets, effects, wigs and costumes leave you reeling. The entire company seems to be newly dressed for each musical number, including a complete ensemble of preposterous dancing paint-brushes for Colour My World. It’s lavish and a half.
The world has moved on since the original movie in the mid-90s, and so has Priscilla itself. Issues that were either edgy, or even unspoken, back then – transsexuality, gay parenthood – now enjoy much greater acceptance, and the entertainment industry has always been in the forefront of that thinking. So we can now watch without discomfort, and simply enjoy the show as a flood of colour, music, outrageous humour; and just the occasional, very touching moment of poignancy.
Mind you, it’s still not a show for the faint-hearted. Anyone walking up unsuspecting for a quiet matinee would be knocked sideways as swiftly as a non-swimmer on a surfboard. Fortunately, the Congress audience at Monday’s opening night was exuberantly on board as the drag queens set off across the outback to discover themselves.
It’s a wonderful ride from the very start. Even the phones-off-please announcement is like a warm-up act, and when the three Divas are flown in for a jaw-dropping opening number, the audience is captured. Then when lead star Duncan James does an on-set change from overcoat to underpants as he dons the drag costume, they are screaming in the stalls, and we’re still only five minutes in.
Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort have fabulous voices, and indeed the music never flags: strong, wall-of-sound arrangements flood the auditorium, and there is such authenticity that you could close your eyes and be listening to the original Village People, Aretha Franklin or Cyndi Lauper. There is astute use of tracks and lip-synch – well, you’d hardly expect a performer to sing that Traviata aria live while flying fifteen feet in the air. The tremolo is a bit overdone once or twice, but heck, this show doesn’t do understatement.
In the lead roles, former Blue singer Duncan James is in rich voice and as Tick, he carries the storyline sensitively and convincingly, while Adam Bailey delivers an enjoyable, uber-camp Felicia. Simon Green’s wrought, self-searching Bernadette is brilliant: tears of a clown, or of a drag queen, which take performer and audience to the emotional limit.
Terrific support comes from Julie Yammanee and Naomi Slights in amusing female roles, and Barnie Gregory – who alternates with Frankie Milward – is an engaging and clear-voiced Benji, Tick’s young son. The high-energy ensemble never flags and choreography is strong and extrovert: this is a show that rarely lets you pause for breath.
Deep and meaningful, or just a sandstorm of sound, colour and indulgence? The latter, I think, but either way, this Queen of the Desert is royally entertaining. Go on, I dare you. Kevin Anderson