Just over 25 years have passed since the first showing of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and albeit groundbreaking for its time, today the show’s handling of LGBTQ+ issues feels lacklustre and ham-fisted, serving only as a slight detour rather than being truly worked into the fabric of the show. In an attempt to stand as both a piece of theatre and a drag show the piece feels disjointed, torn between its two halves and relies upon the energy of the performers to pull the show along.
The show follows three drag queens as they journey through the outback in an attempt to put on their biggest show to date. Yet, despite this clear goal the story is largely pushed aside by the musical numbers and mentioned only infrequently, sparely scattered throughout with only the barest details in an attempt to avoid confusion for the audience.
Many of the more emotional or important story elements are overlooked as the show never spends the time to properly build the characters, and as a result, never earns the care it demands from the audience to give such scenes weight. Those that come looking for a meaningful plot and characters will be severely disappointed, whilst those wanting to enjoy a raucous, energetic drag show will be bored by the plot additions. Through trying to appease both parties the show becomes a mere shadow of both.
Thankfully there are redeeming factors present within the piece. Performances by Miles Western (Bernadette) and Nick Hayes (Felicia), two of the three leads, are a joy to behold. They both perfectly ooze character, their movements, boldness and fire that they imbue into their performances create a believability and stage presence that captivates from start to finish. Western’s timing, wit and cool confidence is electric, yet he creates a vulnerability within later stages of the show that provides a welcome depth to an otherwise bland show.
The musical’s star, Joe McFadden (Tick), feels awkwardly out of place in comparison to his supporting leads. He brings none of the flare nor drive that the others have and merely seems to be swept up in their performances from start to finish. Unfortunately, as the show’s star many of the story detours are in his hands, consequently making what should be meaningful moments between lifelong friends seem awkward and at times laughable.
It is the large drag numbers that truly reveal the strength of the cast and ensemble, coming together to form explosive and vibrant renditions of an array of pop hits from the film. The orchestration is a joy to behold whilst the choreography is tight with hints of the cheesiness required to remind the audience of the fun drag nature of the show.
Moments of cleverness do exist within the show, but they are few and far between. Story is cleverly conveyed through a play in meanings during the song “Hot Stuff” and the fight-like choreography creates a tension unmatched within the rest of the show. Sadly, scenes like this are few and far between. There is little complexity to any ensemble characters with all existing simply as stereotypes of residents you might find in the outback in an attempt to get a cheap laugh from the audience.
Despite the clear care put into the score, choreography and performances from the supporting leads, the show feels like a hollow replica of the original film with none of the charm or subtleties. The story is side-lined to push musical numbers with the sole purpose of dazzling an audience, lacking in any nuance. I found myself caring little for the characters by the end and left feeling somewhat bemused as to why the show didn’t double down on theatrics and remove the story entirely, making it a drag act from start to finish.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until the 25 January. For more information and tickets, see their website.