Long before Shakespeare asked his men to enter the stage "dressed as girl", thus purportedly giving birth to the word "drag", men have been throwing on suspenders and a bra and passing their time on the stage dressed as women. From the Bacchic throng of the ancient Greeks to the Frank N. Furter of modern Transylvanian, theatre has long played with the notion of its "Sweet Transvestites", exploring and exploiting transvestite and transgender identities with wit and colour.
And here we are in 2013, the year where The Rocky Horror Show reaches its fortieth anniversary, Kinky Boots earns the lion's share of Tony Awards and a new tour of Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott's Australian glitter-bomb, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert takes to the road on a UK tour.
It's your typical Broadway show: a drag queen leaves the grit and the glitz of her seedy showbiz lifestyle behind and invites her two best friends to go on a trip across Australia to meet her estranged son for the first time. From homophobia to harmony, the play explores the fun and fear of the characters' lives in one of the most colourful shows ever staged. And, if that wasn't enough to have you reaching into your bright pink purse, the narrative is driven forward by a familiar and catchy score of camp anthems like "I Love the Nightlife", "Boogie Wonderland", "True Colours" and "It's Raining Men".
Adored by the audience, Jason Donovan, a man as synonymous with Australia as "throwing another kangaroo on the barbie", plays Mitzi Mitosis, the distant dad and drag queen, very well, recognising the pathos of the character's situation without losing sight of the fun and frivolity at the centre of his lifestyle. He is vocally exceptional, at times crooning with a rich, David Bowie inspired style and, at others, fizzing with camp effervescence.
But whilst Scott Robinson may be the one to encourage audience members to buy tickets, his fellow performers help to ensure that every penny buys them entertainment. Richard Grieve is excellent as transsexual Bernadette, finding a rare elegance, beauty and strength in the character, delivering a performance which hints at the sadness of her past and the strength which she has summoned to overcome it.
Stephan Elliott's book is crudely funny and, though it often descends to jokes which have been lifted directly from a joke book, proves entertaining. But whilst the producers have managed to find the black humour in the subject matter, one cannot help but feel that, spare a few scenes which preach the importance of self-belief and challenge provincial homophobia, that Priscilla galvanises homosexual and transgender stereotypes in the eyes of a predominantly straight audience.
The public view of sexual identity has moved on greatly since the 1994 film was producedbyet the show's portrayal of the LGBT community has not: with the exception of Bernadette, this is a show which suggests LGBT lives are still marked with homophobic violence, excess and promiscuousness that would make Casanova blush. Perhaps there is a great danger here of selling out the truth of contemporary LGBT lives in the pursuit of selling tickets and cocktails to hen nights.
Nonetheless, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is an enormously entertaining show, strengthened by an excellent cast and presented with some of the most creative designs ever seen in recent theatre. Colourful and crazy, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's. costume designs are some of the most wonderful creations ever to hang on a coat hanger in a theatre.
After all, you haven't truly experienced theatre until you've seen a group of men dressed as cupcakes singing and dancing to "MacArthur Park"...