Certainly not for the faint of heart, or conservative ‘I wear-a-suit-every-Sunday’ types, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a West End musical with a difference.
An adaption of the 1994 comedy film of the same name (originally starring Hugo Weaving of Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, and directed by Stephan Elliot), the musical brings something new to the stage that has never been seen before. More outrageous that The Rocky Horror Picture Show and far more hilariously outspoken than Avenue Q, the musical spans every possible kind of innuendo, every possible expletive, and every possible combination of bizarre costume combinations.
Featuring many easily-recognisable tunes such as ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, Priscilla is a rude, witty, and glittery beast of a musical. Despite the familiarity of the songs – there is nothing new here musically, in fact, all of the songs have been chart hits – Priscilla provides something incredibly fresh to the West End.
Set in the blistering heat of Australia, the story follows three drag queens as they head out from their home town of Sidney to a final gig in Alice Springs. It may sound like your average road trip story, but armed with plenty of glitter, confetti, and a giant pink bus that they name Priscilla, this is no ordinary road trip. Never a dull moment, never a second without some quip, or expertly executed dance routine, Priscilla is not just entertaining, it is a musical full of hysterical laughter.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert has won several awards, including Best New Musical, Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Best Set Designer, and Best Choreographer in the What’s On Stage Awards 2010, plus hit reviews from The Times and The Telegraph. For a musical that began as a small cult film that bordered more on art house LBGT culture than on comedy, Priscilla (the musical, for those that may not have been reading close enough) dives right on centre stage and steals every single colour of green limelight within the electromagnetic spectrum. This may sound a little sensationalist, but even with a more objective view there is just no way of denying that Priscilla’s wit and invention cannot be bested by any other West End musical to hit the stage so far.
It’s not even that it is just funny – Priscilla is memorable. It has been a year since this reviewer first saw it and I am still talking about it to everyone I meet. It would be easy to dismissively state that it is because it is just blatantly outrageous and full of drag queens (you aren’t going to forget that in hurry), and yes, to a certain extent, that is true. However, unlike rival West End musicals, Priscilla amazes because the stage and set design are so thoroughly worked out. Producer Garry McQuin states on the Priscilla blog that:
‘Priscilla herself was (and is!) the obvious problem. We spent a long time (maybe a couple of years) trying to work out how not to have a bus on stage … not because we didn’t want Priscilla, but because she was always going to take up so much stage space. There are practical issues (the bus has to fit four dancing actors in it) and the aesthetic issues – she has to look like a bus, not a minibus. An even bigger problem was offstage storage – how would Priscilla disappear for the scenes she did not appear in? We didn’t know how to fit the bus on stage or off stage, but we knew our audiences would expect the title character to make an appearance.’ And certainly the transition from film to stage would be difficult, but to be able to ingeniously design a set that allowed not only the bus Priscilla to appear on stage, but also give the impression of the wide open spaces of the Australian outback… that indeed, is why Priscilla is truly impressive upon the memory. So how did the team manage to get a bus on stage? Garry McQuin reveals: ‘the problem was solved by our brilliant designer, Brian Thomson (who by the way designed the original London production of Jesus Christ Superstar in the same theatre in 1972!). Simon Phillips (director) was working on an opera in Hamburg and the design deadlines were looming, so Brian and I met up with him and spent a week (in a small apartment in a snowstorm!) working through the show. Brian came up with the idea for a ring revolve – to give the impression of bus movement / passing scenery – and everything followed from that.’
It is easy to see why the musical has gained such an impressive set of rage reviews. So much thought and effort has gone into every aspect of this raunchy, and sometimes ridiculous production. The neon Priscilla sign complete with glittery shoe lighting up London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is merely just a glimpse of what is to come on the stage within.
If you prefer a musical about little boys in ballet shoes, or kids in high school, or Saturday matinee with the kids type shows, ignore this review and forget about ever seeing Priscilla Queen of the Desert. But if you want to see something genuinely side-splittingly hilarious with generous dollops of cross-dressing mixed with ingenuity and serious innovation, make sure you book your tickets before 2010 is out: Priscilla is headed stateside for its debut across the pond this autumn and will be merrily singing, dancing, and cursing throughout Broadway by Spring 2011.
In summary: buy tickets for you, your best mate, your other best mate (but best leave your mum and auntie at home). It’ll be the best waste of money you’ll ever experience.