01 February 2018

Review: Priscilla

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical 
Michael Cassel Group and Nullabor Productions in association with MGM on Stage
30 January 2018
Regent Theatre

David Harris, Tony Sheldon, Euan Doidge. Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. Photo by Sam Tabone Getty Images

As a commercial film-to-juke-box musical. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical remains a high kick above the rest. Based on the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the live show was developed in Australia in 2006 and has been beyond the empty outback to 29 countries and 134 cities, including New York and London. The universal language of dance pop, body waxing and sequins travels well.

For its tenth anniversary Tick (David Harris), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon, who has played the role all over the world and is heading to 2000 performances) and Felicia (Euan Doidge) are back on the bus and have pulled up in Melbourne before heading to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Tick is Mitzi most nights in a Kings Cross drag club until his secret ex-wife invites him to bring a show to the Alice Springs Casino where she works. He's joined by former Les Girls star and transgender woman Bernadette and young performer Adam/Felicia and the trio drive an old bus, called Priscilla, from Sydney to the centre. Shenanigins follow as deep-bush meets inner-city, sass and sparkle reject hate, and chosen families create warm fuzzies.

Stephan Elliot's 1994 film did so much for bringing queer stories to the screen and popular narratives. It confronted assumptions, celebrated inner-city Sydney's queer community (when it was still called a gay community), increased queer visibility, and helped drag drag out of its not-so-comfortable portrayal of women with a super-fabulous leap of bloody-bonza-Aussie-original-fabulousness with Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costume designs.

It also addressed violence, rejection, shame and hate and has an undertone of fear, bitterness and melancholy that makes it so much more than a flag-waving story about everyone being fabulous.

Twenty-three years later, Australia reminded us that we're still striving for fabulous and that queer communities and families are still considered different by a boringly-large chunk of the country – not just the bush bogans on stage – and our government.

This show welcomes updated technology to add to the outrageous colour, sparkle and Brian Thomson's bus design – and Chappel and Gardiner's costumes are still magnificently witty – but how amazing would it be to see the show updated to reflect Australia here and now? What if it confronted the problematic beneath the sparkle?

I don't understand why shows like this are so often stuck in a time and not updated beyond Kylie songs – there's a lot more Kylie in it now.

Priscilla is fun. The cast are amazing and its broad appeal that tones down sex and makes violence safe with a dance number guarantees success. If commercial theatre is about making money, it's the most successful Australian show around.

This same success seems to make it easy to ignore, or joke away, its problems – especially those that laugh at the very communities it claims to be celebrating.

The lesbian jokes would have felt awkward and dated in the 1970s, and there are trans jokes that are even older and more ignorant. Winking to the audience that "Uluru is sacred" only re-enforces the  unacceptable references to "Ayers Rock" and celebrating the offensive act of climbing it. And for the love-of-not-being-horrible, why keep the Asian, German and Scottish stereotypes – and the Australian ones? This is a show about love and acceptance that encourages laughing at difference.

Tick, Bernadette and Felicia don't make safe choices to find happiness. They risk violence, hate and rejection. It's sad that their show makes safe choices to risk what? Risk offending people who don't like theatre that makes them think for a moment?

The Midsumma festival is also on in Melbourne. There are shows that celebrate queer artists and queer stories and don't smooth away anything that isn't comfortable to acknowledge. If you're going to see Priscilla, make sure you see at least one Midsumma show as well.

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