May 2011

Karla Smith

Three Men and a Campervan (Full of Mascara):
Review of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

The glittered confetti and feather boas flew through the air, the gigantic disco ball made the whole room sparkle and the likes of The Village People and Donna Summer had the whole crowd up on their feet dancing the day away. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a nightclub playing the hits of yesteryear, and in some ways you’d be correct. However, it was four o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of London, and much of the confetti and boas were being thrown around by the three men on stage. Yes, we were watching – and metaphorically on board - Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the infamous campervan all the way from Australia.

Having started back in March 2009, it’s gained numerous awards in its relatively short life, particularly the Best New Musical prize at the publicly-voted What’s On Stage Awards, which goes to say something, really; on the surface, you can’t say there’s really much appeal in watching men wearing dresses and lip-syncing to disco songs. However, when you bring together the characters, the story, the costumes and the feel good factor, it’s hard to disagree with why the show has earned as much praise as it has.

The story, in a nutshell, tells of three Aussie friends on the road from Sydney to Alice Springs for the performance opportunity of a lifetime; to crack the nutshell open a little, we have to add that they’re all men dressed as women. There’s Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi), an uninspired drag queen whose estranged wife invites them to her casino to perform; Bernadette, an uptight and feisty transsexual trying to find life after the death of her husband; and Adam (otherwise known as Felicia), the new girl in town who regularly bites off more than she can chew. However, while each has their own destiny to fulfil, Tick hides a secret from his comrades that could shatter their friendship. The trip isn’t just to perform on a new stage... but for Tick to meet the son he gave up when he put on his lipstick.

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May 2011

Karla Smith

While the show focuses around Tick and his journey to fatherhood, both Bernadette and Felicia are excellent characters, often stealing the spotlight from Tick himself with their comic banter and moral dilemmas. Tick (played brilliantly by Richard Grieve) may be in charge of the more serious issues and songs of the show, but Oliver Thornton‘s flamboyant Felicia is never far away with some rude and crude humour. However, the highlight for me was by far Don Gallagher, whose deadpan portrayal of Bernadette injected both realism and (at times needed) masculinity into the show. When her potential love interest Bob turns up in the second act, you can’t help but root for her to follow her heart.

The music, as well, is both refreshing and memorable. Comprised mainly of classic 70’s and 80’s floor fillers, both the main cast and ensemble deliver each of them perfectly. Tick’s rendition of a slower ‘Say A Little Prayer’ is fitting for his situation, while his Elvis collaboration towards the end of the show will tug at the heartstrings of the more emotional audience members. I could name at least a dozen songs from the show which I and the spectators around me loved to pieces, but it would be safe to say that the two performances of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ are particular crowd favourites, from its lipsynced beginning right through to the mainly male company of voices pelting it out as they walk off stage. However, special mention has to go to the bizarre yet pleasing disco version of ‘Macarthur Park’ (yes, really). While the pathway into the song is ridiculous, I dare anyone to not enjoy it in all its absurd glory.

Of course, no musical – especially a musical based on film – comes without their faults. If you’re a fan of the 1994 film, be prepared for something even more colourful and nonsensical; while the screen version can be quite hard hitting and sombre at times, the majority of that is washed over on the stage with extra songs and a few visual gaffs. Felicia’s dream to perform ABBA at King’s Canyon has also been changed to Kylie Minogue on top of Ayer’s Rock; a detail that probably means little to those who haven’t seen the movie, but makes a difference when Felicia hums Kylie hits throughout the show.

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May 2011

Karla Smith

For those unfazed by the differences between screen and stage, the choreography can be a tad unimaginative at times, but is easily made up for with the crazy wigs and even more outrageous costumes (don’t worry movie fans – the infamous sandal dress in still in there, as is Felicia’s silver operatic number on top of the bus). Likewise, the links into songs can be too daft to bare sometimes, and if you’re not a fan of too much crude humour then Felicia may not be the character for you. In fact, if you’re not a fan of crude humour in the slightest, then avoid this show at all costs; it’s not filled with it and there’s plenty more to enjoy besides, but you do need to be at least open to it.

Overall, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, if given the chance, will completely knock you off your feet. It might not be your cup of tea if your favourite shows in the past have been Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, sure, but from the moment that you notice the singing divas hovering high on the stage to when you exit the theatre, you know that you’ve seen an entirely different definition of ‘musical’. It’s loud, colourful, bizarre and, above all, fun. Some shows can be described by saying “if you don’t cry, then you have heart of stone”. If you don’t enjoy a single part of Priscilla, my friends, then you don’t have a funny bone in your body. ▪
For tickets, visit

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