Brighton Year-Round 2019
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Mark Groucher, Jason Donovan, Gavin Kalin, Matthew Gale, Laurence Myers in Association with Nullarbor Productions and AGM on stage.
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Festival: Brighton Year-Round
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott) is staged by Simon Phillips. Directed by Ian Talbot and choreographed by Tom Jackson Greaves it has a Set and Costumes Designed by Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels, Costume Supervision by Cusick-Smith, Louise Curwen and Sabrina Cuniverto. Wigs are by Betty Marini with Lighting by Ben Cracknell and Sound Design by Ben Harrison with Props by Ryan O’Connor. Musical arrangements by Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy with orchestrations by him and Charlie Hull. Richard Weedon is Musical Supervisor and the band’s led by Sean Green and Richard Atkinson.
If you weren’t dreaming prosecco and cakes for Christmas you might well be after they apparate in this staging by Simon Phillips. In other words Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott) hits Theatre Royal, Brighton with the sound of 100 paint pots exploding on the stage.
That’s unfair to the pizzazzy orchestra punching wonders from the pit, but it gives an idea of the sheer colour-chart hitting your eyes and ears where the land of nuance in this outback is unknown.
There’s less nuance in Phillips’ storyline too, which has to snatch the original film’s story in between the hits, most prominent is ‘I Will Survive’, a kind of ‘I Am What I Am’, as is made clear.
The story’s simple enough. Joe McFadden’s Tick (stage name Mitzi M’Tosis) is phoned by his wife showbiz Marion (Miranda Wilford) about their six-year-old son whom he’s never seen. Marion’s cool with Tick’s being gay but he needs to step up and come to Alice Springs; and give her Casino a drag boost. That’s a whole desert away from Sydney.
So accompanied by colleagues and friends – transgender woman Bernadette Bassenger (Miles Western) and fellow drag queen Adam/Felicia’s Nick Hayes – we’re on a road movie turned anthem on a bus called Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s a wondrous construction too, like a caterpillar assembled whose component parts function as bar and bits of backdrop. Dirty silver, it gets the pink treatment halfway, which doesn’t make it any more reliable. But then there’s Daniel Fletcher’s Bob. Still, we’re getting ahead and not even run out of spare parts yet.
Directed by Ian Talbot and choreographed by Tom Jackson Greaves Priscilla has a fluid set (props Ryan O’Connor) with that articulated bus and a bright palate. There’s a gantry effect when either the three Divas or the three Queens climb that massive red King’s mountain – here a projection – that features in the film though here it’s sketched as a backdrop and rather missed as a plot-pot (but who really cares?). Costumes by Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels are outstanding (as are Betty Marini’s wigs), and keep arriving, whether drag variants or an ensemble pumping on with paint-prints or the hat-toting glamour of the finale in white pink and navy predominating. That’s after a gallimaufry of dusky outback garbs and hats that bring a tinge of cowboy to Oz.
Lighting’s by Ben Cracknell with sound design by Ben Harrison ensuring we’re not overwhelmed with an unnecessary sonic boom. That’s also due to the musical arrangements by Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy with orchestrations by him and Charlie Hull; the band’s led by Sean Green and Richard Atkinson. The three Divas – Aiesha Pease, Claudia Kariuki and Rosie Glossop – are outstandingly fine too and make this a musically sovereign production.
McFadden’s Tick has an ambivalent relationship to his friends: they don’t know he’s married with a son. Still less that technically he’s still married. That’s one reveal at the right time and McFadden conveys his character with appeal and some delicacy. His characterisation is vibrant but never oversteers with a sense of being key: there’s touching moments at the end he rises to with absolute truth. This production emphasizes the trio’s equality with Hayes’ outré Queen – a vigorous, obnoxious, delicious portrayal. Even more, Western’s melancholy trans character journeys through loss to a dawning possibility. Western anchors the solitude Bernadette’s character throbs with.
There’s spills along the way, they perform for the Aboriginal community, then less successfully to the town of Coober Pady – that’s where the homophobia’s pronounced enough for dark characters, particularly the barmaid. There’s a set-piece where a vicious message gets flagged in individual letters and appear too on the bus. These are grunge moments, grungily done.
Later there’s the arrival – amazingly – of mechanic Bob. Somehow he found them and can just about fix Priscilla. He fixes a lot more – arriving with Bernadette to rescue the unbelievably reckless Adam who as Felicia is trying to get laid by outbackers whilst posing as a woman. Hayes is a convincingly wild, even unpleasant Adam, but shows how emotionally dependent he is, as well as grateful.
Fletcher too with an avuncular part gives flesh to the good guy role, the man who admires the trio for who they are. It costs him his jealous wife, Jacqui Sanchez’ Cynthia, who hi-jacks the trio’s performance with a mesmerising turn with ping-pong balls. Bob’s growing friendship with Bernadette gives rise to that champagne and cake joke.
The finale is as you’d hope gloriously over the top. Edwin Ray’s Frank, and the rest of the ensemble are first-rate: Jak Allen-Anderson, Natalie Chua, Emma Crossley, Jordan Cunningham, Martin Harding, Justin Lee-Jones, and Kevin Yates.
This production has a different feel to some. There’s an emphasis on colour – it’s visually throbbing and you might prefer shades – and primary colours explode elsewhere too. Jackson’s choreography mixes Strine and strut in an individual way, full of snakings and swoops. The actors though shadow in their characters and move feeling around the sometimes glorious pizzazz. McFadden’s performance is detailed and acute with an immensely satisfying finish. Hayes is a consummate tease with a touch of terror. Western brings the grain of past agony and a fragile hope as well as an avuncular camp. It’s these three, the divas and a superb cast who give this production its beating pink heart.