Tuesday, 26 October 2021

REVIEW: Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Three drag queens travel across Australia to a casino in Alice Springs on their unreliable bus, Priscilla, so one of them can meet his six-year-old son for the first time. On the way they encounter prejudice of various sorts from the locals in some remote outback watering holes. This they diffuse, with varying degrees of success, by performing their act, which consists of miming to disco classics in outlandish costumes.

Priscilla, originally a film then in 2006 a musical, was ground-breaking in its previous incarnations, featuring gay and transgender characters as its protagonists. It probably opened the door to shows like Kinky Boots and Everyone’s Talking About Jamie. It arrives now in a different time, with the world of drag queens now more open and visible to general audiences through those shows and on TV the likes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. But it still retains its original intention of proclaiming the rights of gay and transgender people and this is still, sadly, a necessary message. 

In this aim the show is often successful, with the leading lady Bernadette (Miles Western) dealing with transphobia and homophobia via waspish put-downs or, in one case, swift physical violence. The overall light-hearted tone, set largely by the impressively staged musical numbers, also creates a warmth around the three leads who, in most conventional settings, would seem out of place and outlandish. 

Musically the show is strong. The seven-piece band is hugely impressive, re-creating stunning versions of numerous disco classics. The dancing is high energy and precise. The singing chorus of three divas is used imaginatively.

This is a feel-good and lighthearted show, but because there are serious issues at its core, there are concerns which the bright and breezy musical numbers can’t disguise. There is something lacking in the chemistry between the three leads. Witty one-liners and brisk put-downs feel like they should be getting laughs but too often land flat. This leads to a lack of empathy with the characters, which Daniel Fletcher’s brilliant and un-showy performance as Bob (who falls for Bernadette) only highlights by contrast. There is also a question about casting a cisgender man in the role of Bernadette, a transgender woman. It’s true this has been the case for the original film (Terence Stamp played the part) and subsequent musical productions, but if Priscilla the show is to claim any credit for mainstreaming these issues, it should also reflect them in its casting. 

The staging is effective but, not surprisingly for a touring show, lacks the spectacle of the West End, particularly with regard to Priscilla herself. Colourful though they are, the costumes feel less polished too, as though they’ve been made from left-overs from other costumes. And I must confess I really missed the huge platform shoes with trousers stretched over them that were such an icon of the film and original musical production.

Review by John Charles 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls M37 | Price of ticket: £45 plus £3 booking fee

Photo credit: Darren Bell
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