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REVIEW: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Everyman Theatre

Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Monday, 9 August 2021

Rating: ★★★★

Pandemic life can sometimes be – like a drag queen – a bit of a bitch.  In these days of gloom, we all need uplifting.  Thank goodness, then, for the joyful tonic of musical theatre; for the back-biting banter of two drag queens and a trans woman; for the funny and poignant story of their quest for love and self-acceptance; for fabulous frocks, outrageous wigs and bun-hugging gold shorts; and for slick choreography and banging tunes.  This show has them all.
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost thirty years since Stephan Elliott’s hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert first strutted into our cinemas.  It still seems so fresh.  Priscilla was a ground-breaking movie, introducing LGBT themes, and in particular the art of drag, to mainstream audiences.
You can’t have too much of a good thing, so in the mid-noughties Elliott teamed up with writer Allan Scott to adapt Priscilla into this exuberant musical.  The UK show opened in 2009, with everyone’s favourite boy-next-door, Jason Donovan, in the role of Tick/Mitzi.  He must have loved the script’s numerous references to his ex-squeeze, Kylie.  In this production, however, Jason is strictly backstage: writing the cheques, balancing the books, and standing in the wings, biting his nails, in his new role as theatrical producer.
As with other jukebox musicals, the plot is paper-thin: Tick/Mitzi (played by Edwin Ray) and his two companions – widowed trans woman Bernadette (Miles Western), and young drag queen Adam/Felicia (Nick Hayes) – drive across the Australian outback in a clapped-out bus – the eponymous Priscilla – so that Tick can be reunited with his son and the trio can perform a show-stopping routine at the Alice Springs Casino.  After leaving cosmopolitan Sydney, our misfit protagonists encounter rednecks, homophobes and Driza-Bone-clad would-be rapists.  But they also meet unexpected acceptance, in the form of handyman Bob (Daniel Fletcher).  After the literal and metaphorical dust of their journey has settled, they arrive at their physical and emotional destinations with a better understanding of themselves, and of the complexities of human relationships.  The concluding message is one of unity: in the climactic scene, set on Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), the trio of outsiders sing, “Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better / We belong, we belong, we belong together”.
If that makes the show seem a little earnest, it also has dancing cupcakes, physical comedy involving untethered breasts, and a mail-order bride (played by Gracie Lai) who performs scene-stealing physical tricks.  And I haven’t even mentioned those jukebox hits – sung mainly by Claudia Kariuki, Aiesha Pease and Rosie Glossop, all in excellent voice – including It’s Raining Men, Don’t Leave Me This Way (performed, in exquisitely dubious taste, at a funeral), Go West, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Macarthur Park, I Will Survive and Hot Stuff.  The whole audience sang, danced and gave the excellent cast a well-deserved standing ovation.
The last word belongs to Cyndi Lauper, who encapsulates the show’s message of recognition and acceptance of the real person beneath the drag:

But I see your true colours
Shining through
I see your true colours
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colours
True colours are beautiful
Like a rainbow.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert runs at the Everyman Theatre until Saturday 14 August.

Explore Gloucestershire
10 August 2021
Paul Sharples

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