Priscilla is still funny and remains camp, but something is missing, says Craig Hepworth.
18 Feb 2014
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, based on the rather brilliant Australian film, has never been a great musical - in fact it has never been a particularly good musical - but the creators of the show are instead going for feel-good, a confection of colour, sequins and disco/pop classics that will have you leaving the theatre dancing in to the night. Sadly, on its return visit it appears that the energy and excitement was left behind when the bus took off for Manchester.
The story of course is paper thin. Three drag queens on a bus (named Priscilla) set out on a road trip across Australia to open their new show in Alice Springs; cue one disco hit after another with flashy costumes and colourful design.
The problem here though is that the show seems to be simply going through the motions. The sound design is so quiet that any excitement that could be generated from hearing your favourite camp classics simply fizzles out, and since that is the main draw for this show (including the bus ... more on that later) it exposes the show's many shortcomings, which in previous productions in London and New York have been very well glossed over.
The costume design by Tim Chappel is indeed impressive, from cup cakes to paint brushes there's always an attack on the senses, however after an hour you do start to feel that the creators of the show realise how thin the material is so they have padded it with as much design as possible. It is also nice to see the set (simple but effective) not really downscaled from the London production, something they should be applauded for.
The cast is a mixed bag. Graham Weaver as Felicia is perfectly fine but tends to get lost as he does not have a great deal to do. Jason Donovan, who has been with the show on and off since it played in the West End, seems to be going through the motions and his singing is noticeably off. Luckily Richard Grieve as Bernadette is fantastic; after seeing the wonderful Tony Sheldon play the role originally, I was nervous to see how others would play it, but luckily Grieve is more than up to the job.
The final blow is the bus itself. While what is on stage is perfectly fine, it in no way compares to the bus used in both London and New York, a brilliant set piece that had the critics applauding it (even if they did not like the show itself); a masterclass in design with its moving panels, thousands of LED lights and show stopping reveal, here it arrives without a whimper from the audience.
While this production is not perfect, you can still have fun. Some of the snappy lines between the three leads are fantastic, the Divas suspended from the rafters are in fine voice and the performance of "Pop Muzik" is genuinely hilarious, and the show moves beautifully at a quick pace. It is also, without doubt, the campest show in town.
Priscilla does leave smiling, as did a lot of the audience on the night I attended, but maybe it's time to put the bus into the garage to have a spot of fine tuning, so that when it returns it can be the exciting and fun-filled evening that we all know it can be.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is at the Palace Theatre Manchester until 22 February.