To quote my friend Richard, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is ‘probably the campest show ever’; and this is where the genius behind the show resides. While the audience is visually confronted with an explosion of glitter, feathers and fabulous costumes, the story behind the glamour actually holds a lot of poignancy and resonance. When three friends, who happen to be drag queens, head off on a road trip across Australia, they explore the relationships behind family, love and friendship and how these relationships are often complicated by (for want of a better word) ‘unconventional’ sexualities and gender identities. Yes, Priscilla is camp, fun and frivolous, but it also delves into the complicated lives of its characters.
Having seen Priscilla in the West End, several years ago, I arrived at The Palace knowing that I was in for a very fun evening and there is no denying that the show delivered. Miss Understanding (Alan Hunter) opened the show with energy and enthusiasm, which infected the audience as easily as the common cold. Alan Turner is perhaps one of the most engaging performers in the show, and it was disappointing that Miss Understanding did not have a larger part throughout the performance. As the play progressed, some of this initial energy seemed to diminish, and I didn’t feel that the show reached the same energetic heights again.
The acting between musical numbers was superb, with Tick (Jason Donovan), Bernadette (Richard Grieve) and Felicia (Graham Weaver) creating and sustaining a believable friendship – they explore the fun, the sombre and the irritating aspects of friendship and draw the audience into this realistic portrayal. However, the musical numbers often disappointed. Despite brilliant acting scenes, Jason Donovan seemed more like a man forced to wear a dress and dance than a professional drag queen. His dancing often lacked grace and extension, which left the audience feeling a mild sense of disillusionment. Graham Weaver, while more convincing, often lacked the exuberant energy of his character’s acting scenes once the music took over. Richard Grieve definitely outshone his co-stars by sustaining the graceful demeanour of Bernadette throughout his performance and, whilst Bob (Giles Watling) fell in love with her, I definitely did too!
It is hard to sustain both a flamboyant, camp show and integrate serious aspects of hate crime and difficultly into this flamboyance. Priscilla achieved this most of the time – the audience was appalled by the violence against Felicia and very moved by Benji’s response to his father’s show. However, there were other moments when the contrast was too sudden for the audience to keep up with the shifts in tone. When Priscilla, the bus, is vandalised with homophobic slurs, I heard some members of the audience laugh – whether this was due to uncomfortable shock, or too much pre-show wine, I can’t say, but it was not the desired response.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is not a show for everyone and those sitting either side of me in the audience were testament to this – on the left were two women having a whale of a time, dancing and singing along; on the right, two women who did not seem to appreciate foreskin jokes. If you enjoy an evening of camp delights and silly, sexual jokes, Priscilla will not disappoint you; but be sure to appreciate the subtler elements of this performance whilst belting ‘I Will Survive’ at the top of your lungs.
Three out of five stars