Once upon a time (in the 1990s) in a hemisphere far, far away there appeared a holy trinity of outsider films from the country of Australia. All featured the legendary actor Bill Hunter, and each of them is among my all-time favourite films. ‘Strictly Ballroom’; ‘The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ exist individually as brilliant films, but as a grouping is an incomparable troika of cinematic brilliance. All three have been adapted as stage musicals. This week the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin is staging ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’. Last night I attended the show.
The musical follows the story of the film quite faithfully. Three jaded Sydney drag queens Tick/Mitzi; Adam/Felicia and Bernadette hire a bus and drive through deepest Australian outback to take up a residency in an Alice Springs casino. Unknown to his companions Tick has a six year old son who lives with his lesbian mother Marian in Alice Springs. Needing a break she calls Tick to Alice to get to know his son – while at the same time hiring them as the casino entertainment. Tick – accompanied by the loud and annoying Adam and transgendered woman Bernadette (formerly of drag revue ‘Les Girls’) buy a bus to transport them to the centre of Australia. They christen the bus Priscilla – the queen of the desert. The musical is about their adventures while on their journey – how they entertain a village bar one night, to find the Priscilla sprayed with the word ‘Faggots’ the next morning; to a party with an indigenous village; to a conflict in the homophobic town of Coober Pedy; to Bernadette’s blossoming romance with Bob (the Bill Hunter character); to their arrival in Alice and ascent (in full drag) of Ayers Rock (‘That’s just what this country needs – a cock, in a frock on a rock’).
When the film was released drag as a performing art form was genuinely transgressive. In 1994 drag was not mainstream entertainment like it has become in the present day. That was long before Panti Bliss became the voice of middle Ireland. It was an era where violent homophobia was mainstream and where AIDS was decimating the community (in the film the bus is not sprayed with the word ‘Faggots’ but rather ‘AIDS f*ckers go home’.)The musical harkens back to that time. The drag queens Tick (played by Joe McFadden) Bernadette (played by Miles Western) and Felicia (Nick Hayes) are fairly ropy and ramshackle as drag queens used to be before RuPaul’s Drag Race polished the art to the point of blandness. The songs are sung with passion and gusto (if not with outstanding vocal ability). In a change from the film Felicia no longer worships ABBA (due to the refusal of Bjorn and Benny to allow the music to be used). Instead he now worships the oeuvre of Miss Kylie Minogue – which seems appropriate considering how she has become a gay behemoth in the quarter century since the film was released).
The songs are crowd-pleasing party stompers (‘I love the nightlife’; ‘Hot stuff’; ‘Finally’ and many more). The costumes and dance routines are equally ridiculous and brilliant.
‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ is a thoroughly enjoyable and moving show about how three outsider freaks can care for each other, while having a wild old adventure along the way.
The show runs until Saturday 8th February in Dublin before moving to Cambridge as it continues its 2020 tour. Recommended.