Priscilla the Party – review

The immersive event is playing now at HERE at Outernet

Priscilla the Party! Trevor Ashley as Gaye Cliché ©Marc Brenner
Priscilla the Party! Trevor Ashley as Gaye Cliché, ©Marc Brenner

Hang on to your wigs, people, Priscilla’s back. Except that she isn’t, not completely. The first thing to realise about this latest distillation of the 1994 road trip movie about two drag queens and a trans woman crossing Australia in a battered old bus is that there’s no bus. Yes that’s right, the eponymous Priscilla appears only as a series of video images projected onto the back wall of the shallow stage, and as a moveable platform with a steering wheel sticking out of it. Anybody who remembers the extravagant staging that lit up the Palace Theatre from 2009 to 2011 is likely to be a bit disappointed. Actually, even anyone who’s seen Bronco Billy, the new American tuner that manages to get a revolving, scene-shifting tour bus onto the cramped stage of Charing Cross Theatre, might feel slightly shortchanged.

What you get at Priscilla The Party! is a festive atmosphere, room to dance, a bullet point retelling of the film screenplay by Stephan Elliott (co-adapted for the stage by Allan Scott), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardner’s now-iconic costume designs which have drag queens got up as everything from exotic lizards and baby koalas to cupcakes and giant paintbrushes, and some gloriously full throated renditions of disco, pop and lounge favourites. You can probably sing along with impunity, as Ben Harrison’s ear-splitting but mostly pretty clear sound system will drown you out, but good luck trying to match the soaring vocals of the trio of divas (Grace Galloway, Grace Lai and Sara Louise) who power through camp classics such as “I Will Survive”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Hot Stuff”. The music is fabulous and, crucially, it’s fully live with Steve Geere’s band delivering satisfying renditions of Stephen “Spud” Murphy’s classy, brassy orchestrations.

This version feels closer in spirit and execution to the flamboyant but rough-round-the-edges aesthetic of the real Sydney gay scene than the aforementioned, and much glossier, full-scale musical that previously played the West End and Broadway, although it’s helmed by the same director, Simon Phillips. It’s not exactly tacky but neither is it overly slick. Andrew Hallsworth’s energetic choreography is performed more with determination than precision, and the acting seldom rises above the serviceable, although Steven Serlin’s sweet rural mechanic who falls under the Sydney-siders’ spell manages to inject some feeling into the proceedings. The trio of leads – Dakota Starr (Bernadette), Owain Williams (Tick/Mitzi) and Reece Kerridge (Adam/Felicia) – deliver reasonable facsimiles of their screen predecessors, but neither the setting nor the direction allows for much in the way of nuance or personality.

This might matter more in a more conventional theatrical setting but in what is essentially a night club where the majority of revellers are there for the glitz and the bangers, it suffices. The production values are nowhere near as high as over at Magic Mike Live, and there’s little attempt to create a complete immersive environment as in Mamma Mia! The Party. There are two intervals, presumably to maximise bar sales, and a couple of drinks is probably advisable if that’s your thing, but guests with dancefloor tickets (seating and dining options are available) need to keep fairly alert as the stage platforms move around extensively, a la the Bridge’s Guys and Dolls. It’s fun, but you need to check your 2024 world view in with your coat.

True to its unreconstructed Aussie roots, this show certainly isn’t PC, which may be problematic for some people. Hostess Gaye Cliché (played with relish by sparkling drag superstar Trevor Ashley, who authentically ups the ante with every appearance) delivers a Kevin Spacey joke that went down like a lead balloon on the night I attended, and the treatment of Shirley, the unfortunate backwoods barmaid who takes umbrage at the presence of glamazons from the big city, smacks of real misogyny. Sure, she’s a horrible homophobe but the tampon-related quip Bernadette silences her with is more nasty than funny, even when Shirley’s played here by a drag queen (Ashley again) rather than a cis woman. Cynthia, the ping pong ball-popping Asian exotic dancer still puts in an appearance, although Lucy Park endows her with such a fierce, empowered joie de vivre that she just about quells the multiple ick factor.

The sequence in the movie where Adam/Felicia, the youngest and most outrageous of the central trio, goes on a coke-fuelled adventure in full drag amongst the unsuspecting menfolk of an outback town, that nearly ends in a full on queer bashing or worse, was a shocking, essential gear change, exposing the ugly face of homophobia. Amid all the anything-for-a-laugh frivolity of this party show, it feels bizarrely out of place, an impression not helped by mostly unconvincing performances.

Priscilla The Party! works best as a glittery fun time. The songs are exhilarating and the hardworking ensemble sell the big numbers for all they’re worth. One can’t help but wonder if it might work better if they just ditched the script altogether and turned the whole thing into the drag concert-cum-fashion parade that it’s already 75% of the way to being. The venue’s proximity to Soho means that the party doesn’t have to end when the show’s over, which feels about right.

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Priscilla The Party!

Final performance: 30 September 2024