Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The Company, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Picture: Paul Coltas
The Company, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Picture: Paul Coltas
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On paper it should never have worked, on screen it was a surprise hit...and on stage, well it just has its own unstoppable life force.

From the land Down Under, where cultural templates so often get turned on their heads, the story of three drag queens careering across Australia in a battered bus christened Priscilla, motors in to Manchester’s Opera House at the start of its first UK tour.

To say it hits its target audience head on would be an understatement. Instead it mows them down like the kangaroos Priscilla leaves in her wake.

Nothing could bounce out of the way of a musical devoted to exuberance and exaggeration.

With chorus lines of dancing paintbrushes, or cupcakes; a handful of Kylie jokes; more double entendres than are actually decent, even by Dame Edna’s standards; and blatantly playing to stereotypes throughout, what’s not to like?

A few may look down on it as a jukebox musical, with more than 30 disco hits – most of them appropriated as women’s anthems long ago – but it neatly subverts most of them to its narrative and plays around with their delivery.

Indeed it’s the songs, rather than the too-often tortured singing of them, that stand proud. Well those, and an outrageous parade of costumes, some of which don’t always behave as they should.

Surprisingly, in a show dedicated to excess, there’s still just a little self-consciousness in the playing of its three leads, by Jason Donovan, Richard Grieve and Graham Weaver, but the standing ovations should soon calm that.

Likewise the stage design is built for speed rather than splendour, with electronic sub-titling for scene changes, or an illuminated back cloth to invoke mood. The video screens on the bus work a visual treat however.

The story’s poignancy may well be treated as an after-thought, but you’d have to be flint-hearted not to be touched by Donovan’s closing duet with one of two child performers who take the role of his son. Even if the show itself is very definitely not one for youngsters.

That apart it will thrive here until February 23.

David Upton