Theatre Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical @ Bristol Hippodrome

by Polly Hember

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Australia’s most successful musical export, is touring the UK for the second time after a three year run on Broadway. The glitzy, glittery, gaudy musical has exploded into the Bristol Hippodrome and was met with sparkly sequins and side-splitting laughs.

Based on the 1994 eponymous film, Priscilla has a canonical and classic road trip narrative of self-discovery with a distinctly alternative, off-the-road twist. In fact, the musical spins and twirls wildly off the beaten track right into the Australian outback. Following the story of Tick/Mitzi (played by Duncan James), a self-confessed “drag queen on the verge of a nervous breakdown” performing in Sydney, with a wife and six-year old son living in Alice Springs. His wife and him organise a drag show in the casino she runs, in order to get him across the desert so he can meet his adoring son and give fatherhood a go. He ropes in classy ex-show singer transsexual Bernadette (Simon Green) and the younger out and proud Felicia/Adam (Adam Bailey) to journey across the desert on a glitzy and iconic bus that they christen “Priscilla”. They journey across the unforgiving outback, going from small town to small town they confront stringent homophobia and prejudice with pride and unity. 

Priscilla allows them not only to open themselves up to self-discovery and acceptance, but also opens them up to friendship, bringing them closer together and closer to themselves. This journey is driven by a fantastic selection of disco jukebox classics, each scene offering a feel-good pop hit. Bedazzled in the most flamboyant costumes you could imagine (the life size lime green cupcake costumes were some of my favourites), and powered through with hilarity – Bernadette’s acerbic wit, Felicia’s camp comedy and a wealth of outrageous tongue-in-cheek jokes elicited deep-belly laughs from the enthusiastic hippodrome.

It took me a minute to reconcile my preteen conception of dreamy boyband Blue with the fantastic, fabulous and fierce happenings on-stage, as Duncan James stripped off not five minutes into Priscilla to don a florescent corset, a peroxide wig, daring heels and full drag makeup. James was phenomenal as Tick, and even better as his drag alter-ego Mitzi. His confidence and commitment to the role was admirable, and he managed to convey the anxious turmoil that Tick undergoes as he works up to meeting his son. You would think that James’s muscular physique, tattoos and boyband good-looks would work against the fragility of his character – but James balanced believable vulnerability alongside bravado with ease. Through careful handling of the role, he produced an incredibly well-rounded performance that was both funny, feeling and (of course) fabulous!

James was supported by a fantastic cast; Green handled the role of Bernadette with style, portraying the jaded transsexual in a soft, gentle and classic light whilst still managing to channel her humour and hilarity. The dynamics between Bernadette and Bob (Phillip Childs), the gruff Aussie mechanic who falls for the drag star, were hilarious, believable and touching all at once. Probing the politics of ageing and sexuality in showbiz, Bernadette’s character represented the changed and shifting landscape of gay culture with phenomenal acting alongside impeccable comic timing. Green stole the show completely and received one of the biggest cheers from the audience at the end.

Bailey was fantastic as Felicia/Adam, clashing with Bernadette’s classic film star looks and appearing in a leather bondage costume gyrating wildly and proclaiming: “I’m your Venus, I’m your fire!” in his first appearance. Representing the young, fun, out and proud drag queen, Bailey’s effusive camp comedy received the most laughs with some hilarious tongue-in-cheek one-liners.

The costumes were a swirling, whirling myriad of sequins and glitter. The drag costumes were flamboyant, outrageous and fantastic: they honoured the iconic outfits from the film and explosively recreated them with exuberance and flair. The amount of costume changes was astonishing; in each hilarious scene you barely had a chance to wipe the tear of laughter away from a false-eyelash laden lid before there was another quick costume change. These transitions were seamless and impressive – especially thinking about the complex dance routines the talented cast undertook. Not a high heeled foot was out of place from start to finish. The excessive and larger-than-life costumes were set against simple staging; the musical’s namesake Priscilla herself was present through the majority and was the principle piece of set design. Other scenes were performed in front of the draped red curtains, cleverly allowing the focal point to either be on the iconic bus or the brilliant drag costumes.  

Everything about this show was feel-good and funny; the songs were unabashedly cheesy and the cast’s singing performances were fantastic. James, Green and Bailey lip-synced in glorious drag fashion for the majority of the songs while the singers (the Divas) were suspended in the air above them. Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort were phenomenal, and delivered unfaultable performances with a soul edge.

Tackling thought-provoking issues surrounding gender identity, sexuality and traditional conceptions of love and parenthood, the transformative trek across the Australian desert is one carried out with light-hearted and ludic gaiety. With astonishing vocals, dazzling dance-routines and costumes, outrageous humour – this musical is a sure-fire feel-good night of fabulous, fierce fun. And after all, in the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper, Girls just want to have fun!​

Book your tickets now, you won't be disappointed! 

Image credit: all photographs by Paul Coltas. 

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