Thursday, 30 January 2014



Theatre Run: Monday 27 January - Saturday 1 February 2014
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 30 January 2014

Reviewed by Kyle Pedley

The Midlands sees the return of one of our top-reviewed shows of last year as the camp, colour and craziness of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the Musical wheels into Wolverhampton this week in its fabulous, inimitable style. We awarded this same UK touring production a top five star rating when we reviewed it in Birmingham last March, and bar one or two minor set changes - characters sitting on the floor where they were once on a bed, one of the character introduction set pieces being a little more minimalised - this is still the same outrageous, hilarious and supremely entertaining feel-good spectacle as ever, and one of the most genuinely fun (and funny) musicals we’ve had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing. 

The jukebox musical, i.e. one where the soundtrack consists of a variety of pre-existing songs and hits as is the case with Priscilla, can be a deceptively difficult thing to pull off well. Whilst a good lineup of known hits will help engage and familiarise an audience immediately, too often the lack of a concise and tailored original score and repertoire of songs can find shows scrambling for their own identities or, even worse, leaning on it’s catalogue of pre-existing tunes to mask a dirth of character, plot or original thinking and creativity (for a perfect example of this see the recent shambles and subsequent closure of Viva Forever! in the West End).

Fortunately, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is an outrageously entertaining example of the jukebox done very, very right.  Based on the modestly successful 1994 comedy which has since gained quite the cult following (and rightly bagged an Oscar for Costume Design), this musical adaptation is a wonderfully extrovert, gloriously camp and relentlessly enjoyable celebration of disco, drag queens and unconventional daddy dilemmas.

Following the general premise and plot of the movie, Priscilla sees aging, somewhat disenfranchised drag queen Tick/Mitzi (Noel Sullivan) embark on a Trans-Australia road trip aboard the titular tour bus to head up a drag act engagement in the nowhere town of Alice Springs as a favour for his ‘wife’ Marion, and in the hopes of re-entering the life of eight year old son Benji. To aid him on his journey and eventual act, he enlists the company of recently widowed transexual Bernadette (Richard Grieve) and ostentatious, somewhat obnoxious young drag queen Adam/Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Graham Weaver).

The relationship between these three leads forms the core and indeed heart of the show and it is a dynamic brilliantly realised, punctuated with some incredibly sharp yet considered writing that certainly celebrates spectacle and showmanship yet at the same time nurtures character delicately and touches upon important social issues of homophobia, transexual acceptance and even more universal notions as fatherhood and aging with surprising poignancy and subtlety. It’s also telling that the shows grand visual moments (of which there are plenty) do not seek to force any particular propoganda or perspective down our throats but rather be joyous, hilarious celebrations of expressing oneself and just having a damn good time - when Priscilla does tackle the heavier issues it does so with impressive restraint, and demonstrated through endearing, relatable characters and not any overt social commentary put front and centre. It doesn’t force or ask you to accept these characters or their lifestyle, but rather they win you over and do so relatively quickly by being engaging, rounded individuals with a wealth of passion, wit and warmth.
For all of its genuine nuance, however, Priscilla is nonetheless undoubtedly a big, exciting, brilliantly flamboyant visual treat. Featuring some fabulous staging and lighting which crackle with the same kinetic energy, flair and disco spirit that fuels the show throughout, and a simply dazzling, brilliantly inventive and almost overwhelmingly varied menagerie of costumes that would put Lady Gaga to shame (and from the same Oscar-winning team who created the costumes for the film), this is one of the most visceral, colourful and vibrant musical theatre spectacles in recent memory. This bombastic, celebratory approach carries through to the performances and choreography, and with the soundtrack including the likes of such classics as ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, ‘I Will Survive’, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland’, all of which are knowingly (and in some places ironically) ushered in, the feel-good vibe is off the charts and the audience crackles with the same excitement, energy and fun that all involved in the show are clearly having.
Speaking of which, the performances are terrific across-the-board, and particular credit must go to supporting performances from the likes of the three ‘divas’ Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell, all of whom deliver phenomenal vocals to some of the major hits and classics they are given to perform (and Leah gets an hilarious additional turn as a boozehound bar owner), and scene-stealing, genuinely hilarious turns from Frances Mayli McCann as mail-order bride Cynthia and Alan Hunter as fellow drag queen Miss Understanding, whose uncanny Tina Turner-esque rendition of ‘What’s Love Go To Do With It?’ early on threatens to steal the show from the outset. However, this is a show which belongs to it’s three leads, and they all put in sterling, noteworthy performances. Noel Sullivan gives the central role of Tick/Mitzi his all, and whilst a handful of the gags and jokes which were leant extra irony and punch when Jason Donovan played the role last year lose some of their impact (notably some Neighbours and Kylie Minogue quips), Sullivan is a more than worthy successor, giving a performance that is both tender and restrained where necessary and brilliantly flamboyant and exuberant come the time for the camp. Nowhere is this more evident than in his no-holds-barred take on ‘MacArthur Park’ which is fabulously egregious, energetic and over-the-top to the point of genuine hilarity. Graham Weaver is suitably mischievous and devilishly good fun as Adam/Felicia, and it’s a testimony to the writing and Weaver’s performance that despite the characters boisterous and inherent selfishness, he is nevertheless a likable and endearing member of the trio.
The most impressive performance of the show, however, has to surely be Richard Grieve’s brilliantly charismatic and wholly transformative turn as Bernadette. Whilst on paper Donovan’s Tick offers all the ingredients and criteria to be the show’s lead, Bernadette is such a delightful, classy, sassy yet somewhat hesitant and occasionally forlorn figure, and Grieve’s performance so deliciously involved and complete that she becomes the shows real shining star amongst all the frocks, feathers and frollocks. It’s no slight to either Sullivan or Weaver, who put in spirited, brilliant performances and certainly more than hold their own, but it is Grieve who simultaneously elevates and grounds the show with a memorable, layered masterclass in not just transgender performing, but character acting as a whole. He is rightly one of our final five nominees for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Theatre Production this year for his performance in the show (for more information visit our Facebook page).
It’s almost impossible to not recommend Priscilla: Queen of the Desert as a near-perfect slice of musical theatre entertainment. It is just so unashamedly celebratory and up-tempo, trucking along at a brisk pace set to a soundtrack to die for and with an almost dizzying number of set pieces and encounters each more hilarious and inventive than the last. Although the second act does fumble somewhat haphazardly into it’s finale, with the anticipated Hot Springs headline act quite literally fast-forwarded through somewhat disappointingly, the final character beats ring true and are satisfyingly forward-thinking without being too neatly tied up or atypical. And by the time the curtain call begins and the costume design and character goes full-out experimental crazy, with kangaroos, koalas and all other manner of critters donning the stage, the entire audience are on their feet in almost rapturous ovation, and rightly so. Few shows can round out and balance character, story, message, spectacle, comedy, pathos, music and sheer joy so perfectly and exuberantly, making Priscilla: Queen of the Desert a toe-tapping, eye-popping delight and a relentlessly joyous and heartily re-affirming road trip well worth taking.

(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)

PRISCILLA: QUEEN OF THE DESER THE MUSICAL is running at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Monday 27 January to Saturday 1 February 2014.
CLICK HERE for more information on the shows run at the Grand and to book your tickets!
Alternatively phone the Box Office directly on 01902 42 92 12.

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Press tickets for this performance of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the Musical were provided courtesy of Wolverhampton Grand directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.

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