The Ladyboys of Ayres Rock

What a drag: Richard Grieve as Bernadette, Jason Donovan as Tick and Graham Weaver as Felicia Picture:  Paul Coltas

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical

New Alexandra Theatre

****

ALL right, so it's no West Side Story, nor a Les Misérables, it's not even a La Cage aux Folles, but ‘strewth cobbers, it's great fun.

It's raunchy, raucous, in-yer-face brash, crude and at times even touching – but subtle it ain't.

It is also most educational with tips for the man about town such as never peroxide your own hair, for those who still have hair that is, and if one should find oneself in need of refreshment in  Broken Hill it would be wise to decline any offer of a glass and to drink out of the bottle, or tinnie.

The tale is simple. Tick, (Jason Donovan) who performs in Sydney as drag artist Mitzi Mitosis  (told you they didn't do subtle) gets a call from Marion (Julie Stark)  a wife he hasn't seen for years who is calling in a favour.

She runs the casino at the desert resort in Alice Springs and needs a show, so thought of him – and adds that Tick's eight-year-old son Benji (played alternately by Oscar Francisco and Joseph Jones) wants to meet his dad.

That leaves Tick with a dilemma: how will his son, who knows his father is in show business react when he finds out what shows he is in and a sad solo of “I say a little Prayer”.

Enough of this sentimental nonsense though, and Tick recruits transsexual Bernadette (Richard Grieve) and fellow drag artist  Adam, stage name Felicia, (Graham Weaver)to join him .

So Felicia, who has a rich mommy, arrives with a Day-Glo, customised bus, they name Priscilla, to drive them from Sydney to Alice Springs on a road trip beyond the black stump as the Aussies would have it.

Along the way they meet some odd characters of the outback in out of the way places which have bars where Fosters in a clean glass would be regarded as a cocktail.

They also meet Bob the mechanic, played by Giles Watling who is probably best remembered as Oswald, the vicar in Bread.

He seems to have a permanent smile and expectation that everything will turn out all right in the end – he reminds you of a sort of younger Australian version of Bill Maynard's Greengrass.

Bob remembers Les Girls, a troupe of drag artists he remembers from his youth and is like a dog with two tails when he find Bernadette is an ex Les Girl fixing the trio up with a gig at his local boozer where he says they will go down a storm – wrong!

Bob's mail-order bride Cynthia  (Frances Mayli-McCann) rather takes over the show with her scanty costume and novel ways with ping pong balls in fetching pink.  She don't do subtlety either.

Richard Grieve is just superb as the transvestite Bernadette who manages to inject a little pathos into proceedings

There is also a homophobic scene when Felicia heads off to a male only drinking den to pick up . . . well men. Unfortunately the Driza-bone clad militia who seem inhabit the male bastion don't seem to have a high tolerance level when it comes to alternative sexualities and  it is only Bernadette's intervention - and well placed right boot – that saves Felicia from becoming a hate crime statistic.

It is perhaps too simple and crude to make any real statement or social comment about homosexuality or homophobia – the characters just don't have the depth to involve you.

But what Priscilla lacks in characterisation she makes up for in quantity and speed, roaring though the story like a desert cyclone with more than 30 musical numbers and enough costumes to stock a somewhat flamboyant boutique.

Apparently each production requires 500 costumes, 200 hats, 100 wigs and 150 pairs of shoes and it shows. The costumes are just fabulous and from the moment the three divas (Emma Kingston, Ellie Lea and Laura Mansell) appear from the sky on wires dressed as overdressed angels, a whirlwind of colours and kitsch is unleashed as costume after costume appears to adorn a sucession of pop standards such as What's Love Got to Do with It?, Don't Leave Me This Way, Go West , I Will Survive and, back to the sentimentality, Always on my Mind as a touching duet between Tick and Benji.

The four leads are supported by an excellent, hard working cast of every changing characters who have to appear as gay bashing rednecks, sheep farmers as well as showgirls and a sort of Ramsey Street Village People.

The marquee name is Jason Donovan, who is a seasoned musical theatre stager now and gives a performance worthy of his star billing; Graham Weaver is excellent as the bitchy, cruel and vulnerable Felicia, who wants to sing Kylie songs in full drag atop Ayres Rock which he manages with Confide in Me and with Mitzi and Bernadete joining him, or in this case her, for Pat Benatar's We Belong.

But the real star of this show is Richard Grieve as Bernadette, the role played by Terence Stamp in the original film. Not only does he display the best pair of legs of all the men in drag – at least I hope they were men – but you would be hard pushed to know he was a bloke.

Grieve, a regular in Neighbours, Home and Away and Emmerdale, is just superb.

The costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are so far over the top they are almost in orbit, colourful, garish and just fabulous while Brian Thomson's bus design, which gives a stage within a stage and creates an illusion of movement  with its four video screens instead of windows – a road movie without actually moving.

The rest of the sets allow fast changes and give an illusion of outback life in what is a very slick production.

Full marks as well to a hard working seven-piece band under rising star Richard Weeden who was last here as assistant MD in  Sister Act and 9 to 5.

The show is written by the original Australian film maker and director Stephen Elliot and Scottish producer Allan Scott and directed by Simon Phillips.

It might be lightweight, superficial and garishly frothy, but cobbers, it is great entertainment, so just sit back and enjoy.

Roger Clarke

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