Melissa Blease reviews Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 18 November
Jesus Christ Superstar, Avenue Q and The Sound of Music; Sweeney Todd, Sister Act and Annie: Bath Light Operatic Group (established way back in 1948) may technically be an amateur theatre company, but they’re super-professional in their approach to bringing the most magnificent musicals to the Theatre Royal stage – and their utterly uplifting, entirely exhilarating 2017 production is possibly their most ambitious, audaciously bold outing to date.
“You’re about to see your dad as you’ve never seen him before,” the woman sitting next to me in the packed auditorium tells her teenage daughter as the show begins. Now I don’t know anything about this particular family’s private life and nor do I know what role the woman’s husband has undertaken. But within moments of the show’s opening scenes, I can pretty confidently guess that whoever “dad” may be, he doesn’t look much like “dad” usually looks when his daughter comes home from school.
Most of the cast are wearing gaudy frocks, sparkly underwear, sky-scraping wigs and very, very high heels – and that’s just the men. Most of the women, meanwhile, are dressed in the style of a flock of Folies Bergère dancers circa 1978, and many more characters fall somewhere in between ‘traditional’ feminine/masculine categories – and Priscilla herself hasn’t even taken to the stage yet.
Priscilla is the battered old bus responsible for transporting two young drag queens (Tick/Mitzi and Adam/Felicia) and a more mature transgender woman (Bernadette) across the Australian desert from Sydney to a resort in Alice Springs, where they are contracted to perform a show… and where Tick will be reunited with his estranged-but-still-close-friend wife and their young son.
But even putting thoroughly modern family structures – let alone the personalities and profession of our gaggle of gloriously glamorous guides – aside for a moment, this is no regular coach trip.
As the tantalising trio wend their way to their destination, they encounter and endure all manner of unexpected obstacles and experiences along the way, including emotional and mechanical breakdowns, homophobic incidents, a Thai bride with a unique skill involving ping-pong balls, and the rekindling of a very strong old flame whose burning passion for a certain lady has never been extinguished.
And as we’re on musical theatre territory, the hits that punctuate each and every scene just keep on coming, resulting in a jukebox of a classic party-on, dance floor hits from It’s Raining Men to a Kylie medley by way of Venus, Go West, I Say a Little Prayer, Pop Muzic, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Hot Stuff and oh, loads and loads more in a similar genre, all performed live, and accompanied by BLOG’s Musical Director Matthew Finch’s fabulous orchestra – party ON!
Rob Dallimore is magnificent as witty, proud matriarch Bernadette, a role indelibly associated with Terence Stamp in Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film version of the musical production; if Stamp was a hard act to follow, Dallimore – one part Danny La Rue, one part Luis Molena, all parts lady – kicks him to the kerb. David Baxter’s Tick/Mitzi flits between featherlight, fickle and frothy to complex and troubled at the snap of a perfectly manicured fingernail (and boy, can this boy dance – watch out in particular for his MacArthur Park moment in the spotlight), and Ryan Hughes is deliciously, delectably, consummately camp as ditzy young hedonist Adam/Felicia.
But driven as she along her journey this time around by BLOG, Priscilla owes as much to each and every member of the impressive ensemble cast as she does to the leading ladies. The music, choreography and terrifically sharp one-liners are flawlessly tight and perfectly-timed, the extravagant costumes suitably spectacular, the overall vibe uproariously, gloriously exhilarating, while the entire production is infused with humanity and bonhomie at every turn.
If you’re the sort of person who wishes it could be Christmas every day, Priscilla delivers an early-season treat for the senses – and sets an example for all of us regarding how to handle those party-season high heels.
Suitable for ages 14+.