The world’s most flamboyant road trip has rolled into Manchester as we’re invited to step aboard a ‘Budget Barbie Camper’ named Priscilla and lip-sync our way through a jukebox of disco hits with the best of them.
Based on the cult 1994 film, and co-produced by its original West End star, Jason Donovan, tonight’s show takes us deep into the Australian outback as we join drag queens Tick/Mitzi (Edwin Ray), and Adam/Felicia (Nick Hayes) and transgender Bernadette (Miles Western) on their trip from suburban Sydney to Alice Springs.
Our ‘ladies’ are set to perform at a local casino as a distraction from their current woes. Unbeknownst to Adam and Bernadette, it will also give Tick the chance to meet his son, Benji.
Along the way they tackle weighty issues of grief, bigotry and what it means to be a parent via a back catalogue of Kylie, Gloria Gaynor and Earth, Wind and Fire amongst others.
Our three queens bring plenty of panache and cattiness to their respective roles. Hayes is particularly good as the feisty Felicia, balancing his outlandish diva tendencies, as he mimes opera atop the bus, against more vulnerable moments, particularly when he encounters violent homophobia during one pit stop.
Ray has bags of warmth as Tick, playing peacemaker during the shows entertaining squabbles, and makes the most of his experience with Matthew Bourne’s dance company to deliver a memorable rendition of McArthur Park.
Western brings some lovely restraint to the role of Bernadette, and a sense of someone who has seen and done it all, helped by a wardrobe befitting Grace Kelly.
But his part perhaps suffers the most from the need to make a theatrical performance so much bigger than one for film. Quiet dignity has to give way to camp flourishes and, whilst it’s no fault of Western, it robs both Bernadette and the show overall of a little bit of the authenticity that gave the film its heart.
Some of the pacing in the quips and barbs they throw at adversaries and each other also doesn’t feel quite as sharp as it could be but, overall, there is good chemistry between the three.
Our trio are joined by the excellent Daniel Fletcher and Gracie Lai as horrendously mismatched couple Bob and Cynthia. Fletcher’s rendition of A Fine Romance is charming, and Lai’s recreation of that ping pong ball routine is a hilarious triumph.
We have three additional Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Aiesha Pease and Rosie Glossop, providing the vocals for many of tonight’s numbers. They do a sterling job, but the tolls of touring occasionally show through with a few cracks in the singing.
Kevin Yates is also a standout as club host Miss Understanding, bringing much physical comedy to his short but sweet appearances. It’s a shame the show doesn’t allow for better use of his character.
What’s particularly heartening for tonight’s show is that the superb ensemble is one of the most inclusive I’ve seen onstage. Whilst it may be a sticking point for some that Bernadette isn’t being played by a genuinely trans actor, there is still a commendably diverse representation of gender, shape, size and race in the cast.
The combined set and lighting design from Phil R Daniels and Ben Cracknell respectively is also well utilised and creates some real moments of magic throughout.
Final praise must be reserved for Charlie Cusick-Smith’s sensational costumes and Diana Estrada’s wigs. Whilst paying homage to the original, iconic looks of the film, these truly bring our characters to life and give Priscilla it’s pizazz.
It’s a sparkling, feel-good romp through the desert and, as our triumphant performers climb every mountain for their Kylie megamix finale, proof that right now ‘a c**k, in a frock, on a rock’ might indeed be just what this country needs.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is at the Manchester Palace Theatre till Saturday 16th October. For tickets visit https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/priscilla-queen-of-the-desert-the-musical/palace-theatre-manchester/
Reviewer: Lou Steggals
Reviewed: 11th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★