Priscilla Queen of the Desert (review). Jason Donovan in drag triumph

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rolled into Aylesbury last night, more than 10,500 miles from its spiritual home in Sydney, Australia, but just a few feet from the hearts of the first night audience at the town’s Waterside Theatre.

Tuesday, 19th November 2013, 8:55 am
Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Photo by Paul Coltas.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Photo by Paul Coltas.

For such an overtly camp musical it, unusually, attracted largely female theatre goers. They were there to give a standing ovation to its star, Jason Donovan, whose name is box office gold. Tickets for the week-long run are almost entirely sold out (but it is playing Milton Keynes Theatre for a week from January 20).

It’s a quirky little tale about three drag queens who haul their glitzy frocks through the desert from Sydney to the testosterone-fuelled outback of Alice Springs in order to put on a show.

It’s gay, high kitsch and impossibly glamorous but behind all the glitter and false eyelashes, there’s a bit of a morality tale about making a stand against rampant homophobia and stereotypes.

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Richard Grieve, Jason Donovan and Graham Weaver in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Photo by Paul Coltas

We all know the reputation of Oz men (and, actually, a few of their Sheilas). They’re a cliché - hard-drinking, hard-living Neanderthals who keep their little ladies chained to the kitchen sink while they enjoy the amber nectar in men-only bars (and they think they know how to play cricket).

So in a clash of cultures how would three diva drag queens cope in their macho world?

Tick (Donovan), at one time, was married and father a son before coming out as gay. His ex-wife, who runs a casino in Alice Springs, invites him to put on a show and meet the son he’s never known.

“I am not a father,” he flounces. “I am a drag queen on the verge of a nervous breakdown!”

But he packs his slap, high heels and wigs, and, together with friends, Adam and Bernadette, they embark on a road trip in a pink-spangled camper van, called Priscilla, across the Australian Outback via the most hostile backwaters the region has to offer.

Along the route we are treated to the entire back catalogue of the campest disco anthems ever written accompanied by a wardrobe of fantasy costumes (in fact, the production hauls 500 costumes, 200 hats, 199 wigs, 150 pairs of shoes and a mini-mountain of falsies).

Most of the songs are accompanied by a trio of disco divas, three high octane princesses (Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell) who know how to belt out a tune –– and who, inexplicably, spend a lot of time suspended high above the stage.

I know I’ll probably get strung up for saying this but for me the star of the show wasn’t Neighbours’ Scott (who is given a saucy name-check by his creator, Jason) but Richard Grieve’s wonderful transsexual Bernadette who tugs on the heartstrings as she mothers the group and searches for Mr Right.

The statuesque Grieve is an eye-catcher. He’s a charismatic actor and blessed with a stunning figure that most women would die for. He looks glorious in a succession of wonderful outfits. But also his storyline is the most compelling and he’s given the best dialogue.

Donovan’s Tick (stage name Miss Mitzi) veers wildly from flamboyant queen to caring dad and manages to pull off both performances with conviction. It’s no wonder he’s the subject of women’s (and probably quite a few men’s) fantasies.

The waspish Adam (Graham Weaver), who performs under the name Felicia, makes up the trio. His reason for going on tour is to climb Ayers Rock in full drag to sing a Kylie medley – that’s if he doesn’t get lynched along the way. He’s a tremendous dancer.

If you’re easily shocked then some of the language may be a bit fruity but really Priscilla is just a wonderful feelgood musical that will have you foot-tapping from the moment the crystal balls start spinning to the very last bars of the disco medley when the cast parade as indigenous creatures from Down Under (I did say it was quirky).

Priscilla runs until Saturday. There are just a handful of tickets left. For more information contact the box office 0844 871 7607 or go online