Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Main Cast Jason Donovan as Tick (Mitzi), Richard Grieve as Bernadette, Graham Weaver as Adam (Felicia),Giles Watling as Bob, Julie Stark as Marion and Alan Hunter as Miss Understanding.
At the Bristol Hippodrome – 15th – 27th April 2013
An introduction to the play from the tour:
Direct from the West End and Broadway the feel-good international hit sensation PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL is coming to theatre near you!
Winner of 4 WhatsOnStage.com awards, including Best New Musical, and based on the smash-hit movie, PRISCILLA is the heartwarming, uplifting adventure of three friends who hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship and end up finding more than they had ever dreamed of.
First of all, I need to acknowledge that not only is this musical based on one of my favourite films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but as I’ve mentioned before, that film was one of my inspirations in becoming a burlesque performer. So, I was super excited to go and see this show, but also wary that it might darken a beautiful thing for me if it didn’t quite hit the mark.
My love affair with Priscilla started as a teenager. I had been struck with a dental problem and was antibiotics over New Year, unable to party, I agreed to babysit for some friends who had Sky TV. After I put the kids to bed, I surfed around and found that this film was about to begin – its UK Sky premier. I had heard of it of course! I used to religiously watch the Oscars and had drooled over the costumes when the film won for Best Costume Design. So now that I had it in my grasp, I wasn’t going to let it go.
Glued to the screen, I laughed, I cried, I drooled once more over the costumes. And I was in love. I remember spending many of my college years trying to work out how I could become one with such costumes. A scruffy tom-boy, I (sometimes not so jokingly) wondered aloud about having a sex change so that I could become a drag queen and WEAR THOSE COSTUMES!! This feeling is what eventually brought me to burlesque.
It has continued to be a source of inspiration for me, a comfort movie, a love affair. And when I moved to Australia in my early twenties it was inevitable that my house mate and I took a roadtrip to Alice Springs in homage.
So, quite understandably, I was a little nervous about seeing the stage show. I hate it when books I love are badly translated to screen, and I really don’t think I could have handled having Priscilla butchered with everything going on in my life.
Thankfully, it was not butchered. In fact, Priscilla has inspired me once more, and my brain is already concocting a Priscilla-themed routine.
As a stage show, changes were obviously needed to translate it from the movie. There were additions (including jokes/scenes that had been cut from the movie) and there were omissions (most noticeably the presence of Australian Aboriginial characters), but all of it worked really well to provide a fabulous evening for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the movie.
There are small changes, Mitzi is Mitzi Mitosis rather than Mitzi Del Bra, things are paraphrased in places and songs are added in others. An especially lovely addition is that of the three divas, who sing, dance and are occasionally suspended above the stage dressed as cockatoos.
The show opened, as the movie, at the club where the Mitzi (Jason Donovan) and Felicia (Graham Weaver) perform. Here they add in a narrator of sorts in the guise of drag performer Miss Understood (Alan Hunter). Miss Understood pops up here and there along the way – the Tina Turner tribute is awesome – and really adds something to this version of the story.
The whole story-line involving the Australian Aborigines (Alan and his friends at the Corroboree), is gone. Although I love this in the movie, and I feel it does add something to the Australian-ness of it, I don’t think this was a terrible move. Although it works fabulously in the film, it wouldn’t necessarily translate well to the stage. Losing it trims it down a bit, and in practical terms it makes casting a little easier and less potentially troublesome for casting logistics as it would need to be Australian Aborigines in those roles to work.
The movie had originally intended the “rock” on which to place their “cock in a frock” to be Uluru/Ayres Rock, but due to filming permissions (as this is a sacred site), it was changed to Kings Canyon (only parts of which are sacred). With no such restrictions on stage, this is reverted back to Uluru, which makes sense in terms of a location that would be better known to international audiences.
The ongoing Abba references in the movie were changed for Kylie. This not only works better as an update, but also with a modern British audience to whom Kylie is a massive gay icon (more so than in Australia!). It also allowed for some tongue in cheek-edness, and resulted in a hilarious comment from Mitzi that he had always fancied Scott from neighbours. Guffaw!
The cast, hands down, are brilliant! Donovan makes the role his own at the same time as including some of Weaving’s Tick-isms as a nice nod to the original character. Richard Grieve as Bernadette is just sensational, and totally believable – hard shoes to step into after the incomparable turn by Terrence Stamp in the original role. Graham Weaver is probably the best cast of all, and as with Guy Pearce in the original, he pretty much steals every scene he is in and still remains my favourite character. The supporting cast were equally as good, especially the drag queens, with the only slight let down being Bob played by Giles Watling, who I just couldn’t seem to gel with (again Bill Hunter is a hard act to follow!).
Priscilla herself, well, it actually hadn’t occurred to me how they were going to portray the budget Barbie camper on stage, but it was fantastic! Especially awesome, were the screens acting as windows and showing the passing scenery change from cityscape to the bush. This was later used to good effect in the defacing and subsequent repainting of the bus.
The extra songs not only work, but really add to the experience. Mitzi singing Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain made me giggle. The purist in me had worried that adding songs would not work, but that was pleasantly not the case.
The overhead mileage/destination sign was great fun, lowered to appropriate heights for each scene. It was used as the sign above towns and bars to know where you were, but then also a mileage ticker to show how far out of Sydney the bus was, etc. For me the giggles came when they were in the middle of nowhere and the sign showed “woop woop” – Australian slang illustrating as much.
My favourite part of the whole show is something that was never in the movie and yet I always felt was missing. In the movie we see flash backs for each character, including back to Bernadette’s childhood, but we never see a flashback to the constantly discussed Les Girls. In the stage show this is introduced, and it comes to life, and it is beautiful and wonderful and it made my heart sing!
Not so great bits?
I hate to find fault in what was an otherwise amazing show, but there was one place in which it fell short and that was the characterisation of Bob’s Filipino wife Cynthia. The film was criticised regarding this same character – a Filipino stripper/performer who marries Bob to get to Australia – as an insensitive stereotype. This is something that could have been rectified in the show, but in keeping with the pantomime campness of it all, they instead made this worse. Cynthia is now a mail order bride, who is completely dismissed by all the other characters. She is played in an over the top way that makes her so much a stereotype that I wouldn’t be surprised if some audience members were offended. I certainly found it a bit distasteful.
Should I go see it?
Whether a fan of the movie or not, this is a great show, that (like the film) is not afraid to say something. Of particular gravitas, and coming off probably darker on stage than it did in the film, as it was thrown into sharp relief against the lightness of the show, was the infamous gay bashing scene. In Coober Pedy, Felicia decides to get high and mess around – which results in being cornered and beaten by some locals, being rescued by his friends before things can get even more violent. In the film this scene is saddening, and upsetting. On stage it was downright disturbing. Perhaps not just because of the light versus dark, but also because watching someone being physically attacked on a stage is less removed than on a screen. Watching him held with his legs splayed for what seemed like an eternity at the time, as a woman, was uncomfortable viewing. That feeling seemed to reverberate around the theatre.
And that’s why Priscilla is and always will be important. The movie was one of the first and most effective (ultimately) mainstream films to launch the LGBT community on the world. But it wasn’t just a fun romp about three silly queens, it was about real people, real friends on a real journey, which included how they were and often still are really perceived and treated by others. The stage show, for all its camp fun, didn’t forget this important message.
The show is still currently touring the UK, so if it comes to a town near you I urge you to go and see it. You will not be disappointed!