Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
New Theatre, Oxford
Tuesday, April 1
AT the start of this show three divas in silver lamé ballgowns and auburn beehives descend from the rafters on wires, and hang there suspended over the stage, belting out It’s Raining Men in full Gospel throttle.
If we were the congregation of a Deep South Baptist church we would be on our feet, doing an impersonation of a gang of whirling dervishes. But we’re not in the Deep South, we’re an audience in Oxford, and we are all still terribly British so the spontaneous hand-clapping and toe-tapping is about as wild as it’s going to get.
But no matter. We are having an enormous amount of fun in our zipped-up, anal kind of way, because I defy anyone — with the possible exception of a certain homophobe I can think of — not to get immediately swept up on the tide of exuberance and hedonism this show unleashes.
Based on the cult Australian movie of 1994, this is the story of three drag queens who set out on a battered bus (Priscilla) from Sydney to Alice Springs for a cabaret season in the casino.
Bernadette is the elegant, ageing transsexual, Felicia is the leather-loving, muscle-bound young gay, while Tick is the queer with the conscience. Still married to the casino owner, and only recently out of the closet, the real reason for his trip is to meet the six-year-old son he has never seen.
This is the best jukebox musical I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen it three times and still want to go back for more). Jason Donovan was having a rest night, but I’ve seen him in the West End and he’s fab. The script drips with wit and bitchiness, the score is littered with some of the best soul tunes ever written — Don’t Leave Me This Way and Boogie Wonderland to name just two — and the costumes are so flamboyant and outrageous they make you gasp: candy-coloured wigs shaped like licorice allsorts, gold sequin codpieces, flippers with stilettos. There are design ideas here that would make Vivienne Westwood’s eyes pop.
There’s a certain sadness behind the story, too, for these are three guys living precariously on the edge of society. “Never forget the cost of our choices, my friend,” says Bernadette to Felicia after he gets beaten up by rednecks in a Coober Pedy bar. You could argue that by going out in a mining town decked in a blonde wig and red mini dress he was asking for it. But then this is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the joy of it lies in its New World spirit of excess and over-the-topness. It’s bad, it’s mad and it’s totally glorious... and everyone leaving the theatre was smiling.
• Continues to Saturday.