Priscilla, Queen of the Desert makes her way to Edinburgh and The Playhouse Theatre stage this week (Tue 5th to Sat 9th November) but sorry folks, as much as I like this show, and love many of the songs in it, this time even Bob the motor mechanic can’t repair the “old girl” this time round.
What has happened, why has “Priscilla” broken down so badly? So many questions, and no real answers, but perhaps it has much to do with the cost of touring a production like this, perhaps like “Priscilla” the show is just showing its age a bit too much now too (the original film was 1994, and first stage show 2006) and times and attitudes have moved on.
This show has had a re-vamp since I last saw it and one of the most obvious differences this time round is that Jason Donovan has left behind his now iconic role of Tick/Mitzi to become one of the producers of this show. That should be a good sign as, if anyone should understand what makes this show work, it is Jason Donovan. Why then are things like the giant lipstick on our opening scene and the moving route map of Priscilla with the places visited and miles travelled on display missing? That lack of road map information means that as an audience we have no idea where in relation to anywhere else “Priscilla” stops on her journey across Australia, west from Sydney to Alice Springs.
Why are all of our sets (except our finale) so basic low-budget looking? Why are even many of the big production costume numbers so trimmed down? The answer has to be tied in with touring production costs. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert should be a big production show spectacle, but from the moment the curtain rose to reveal a set taking up only a limited amount of space on this large Playhouse Theatre stage, it was obvious this was not going to be the case. Perhaps suffering more than anything from the obvious budget restrictions is the star of the show herself. Here poor Priscilla has been demoted in size to a mini-bus.
For this production, our “Queens of The Desert” are Joe McFadden (Tick/Mitzi), Miles Western (Bernadette) and Nick Hayes (Felicia/Adam), and here again there are problems as for me Joe McFadden is just not stamping his “high-heeled” authority as lead “Queen” in this production and is far too often over-shadowed by Miles and Nick. For far too much of this show, it is Miles Western as Bernadette who is taking every scene that he is in.
On the surface, our three title roles are simply “performance divas”, but this script is written to give them far more depth than that, and there are many subtle areas for anyone playing these roles to explore, and they require performers who can not only do the songs, but bring that emotional depth required to their roles. Miles Western, as the show moves on, brings much of that emotional depth to Bernadette, but I got little sense of that from Joe McFadden as Tick/Mitzi, not even in the scenes with his son. Once he appears on set, Daniel Fletcher as Bob starts to steal so many of the scenes, and his growing relationship with Bernadette (he and Miles Western work well together) becomes for me the main focus of the story, and that should not be happening in this show.
This, with the added addition of many performances from the rest of the cast, sadly means that all too often the show is reduced to caricatured stereotypes reducing many of the best songs ever written to nothing more than karaoke performed with too many uninspiring dance routines.
There are real issues of prejudice that we encounter in this show, but again little depth to them, and they are glossed over far too quickly, and all too often the question of “are the audience laughing with”, or “laughing at” has to be asked. Has a show about acceptance of people as they are started to fuel the very stereo type image that it should be fighting against?
Despite everything wrong with this production there are still some great songs here – “Don't Leave Me This Way”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “Macarthur Park”, “Hot Stuff”, “True Colours”, “Always on My Mind” and many more classics. It is such a pity though that the only time when the production budget seems to have been increased is on the closing finale.
Let’s hope Bob does manage to repair Priscilla as the last thing that any theatre needs is a broken down old bus left on its stage.
Review by Tom King