Back for its second UK road trip, smash-hit musical Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert visits Wolverhampton Grand this month with a brilliant new cast on board. Starring as the show's loveable leading ‘gender illusionist’ Tick (aka Mitzi Mitosis) is Blue's Duncan James, who gets by with a little help from Simon Green and Adam Bailey as his friends and co-performers, Bernadette and Adam (aka Felicia).
A zany, off-the-wall and outrageously camp adventure through the Australian outback, Priscilla first won over audiences on screen with Stephan Elliott's 1994 movie starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp. It wasn't till 11 years later that it made its first stage outing, showing, appropriately enough, at Sydney's Star City casino. The story remains essentially the same on stage: at its heart is the conflict between absentee father Tick's desire to see his six-year-old son, and his anxiety over what the boy will make of his drag queen dad.
“I think one of the main reasons I took this part is that I really related to Tick,” says James. “I have a daughter and I've been through something similar with my own sexuality, so the script really resonated with me. I really wanted to put my own spin on it and play it from a truthful point of view, so I feel very lucky that I got the opportunity to do it.”
When Tick's estranged wife Marion (Naomi Slights) invites him out to Alice Springs to meet his son Benji (Oliver Butler/Christopher Dixon), he opts to bring along his performer pals - partly for moral support, and partly to help him put on the best show possible at Marion's casino. Enter the elegant transsexual artiste Bernadette and the hyperactive young Adam/Felicia, with a laugh like Tom Hulce's Amadeus and a sex drive on a Frank-n-Furter scale.
“Felicia is very boisterous and very silly, and maybe a bit obnoxious,” says Bailey. “She likes to have fun with people, sometimes at their expense, but I think if I'm doing it right, she should be a bit loveable as well. She's just a bit of a puppy dog.”
“Bernadette has had a very successful career at the Les Girls drag club, which is actually a real place in Sydney, but she's now retired,” Green explains. “She's based on a real person called Carlotta, who was one of the first people in Australia to have a sex change. She's a big star in her own right, and nowadays she does a lot of speaking out on political matters.”
Also along for the ride is Philip Childs as Bob, the knight with shining car parts who arrives to rescue the broken-down bus. But Priscilla's not the only lady his mechanic's touch could be good for: having fled his demanding wife Cynthia (played with aplomb by Julie Yammanee), Bob might also have the know-how to fix Bernadette's aching heart. Then of course, there are the showstopping singers Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort as the fabulous flying Divas, as well as a whole ensemble cast supporting the show, including Wolverhampton's own Richard Astbury, whose previous Grand performances include Coricopat in Cats.
“It's always fun to go home and see friends and family, and for them to see you in a new show,” says Astbury. “I've been watching pantomimes at the Grand since I was about six years old, and then I was in MusCom, the musical comedy company. I've also got friends who work there, so I know the theatre very well, but it's been a while since I performed there, although I only live in Birmingham.”
Famed for its spectacular visuals, Priscilla features upwards of 500 amazing outfits, ranging from bright green cupcake costumes complete with light-up candle hats, to mop-haired cheerleading uniforms and dark, Disney villain-esque attire donned for a flamboyant funeral. But as any showgirl knows, looking your best can come at a cost: it's not easy being beautiful.
“The headdresses are the hardest thing,” says Astbury. “At one point, I'm dressed as an emu with a two foot headdress on, and it's so long that if you tilt your head it carries the weight with you, so your neck muscles are always tensing. As you can imagine, the choreography's quite difficult when you're wearing that along with a basque and heels, so you have to strengthen your body in a different way to anything you've done before.”
“I suffer with back problems and I get sciatica down my left leg, so the heels have been really tough for me,” says James. “There was a hairy moment the week before the show opened in August when I was rushed to hospital because I couldn't move. It turned out I had a slipped disc, and I had to have an epidural to get me walking again. But those injections are wonderful things, and everything's been great since, touch wood! I think once you get used to doing something repetitively, your body adapts and gets strength in different ways, so now I feel a lot more comfortable and confident doing it.”
As if getting used to wearing the outfits wasn't enough, they've also had to learn to throw them on and pull them off in a hurry for the show's lightning-fast costume changes.
“Behind the scenes is like another show in itself,” James continues. “Sometimes, we've got to go from being dressed as a man to being in full drag make-up, wig and everything in less than 30 seconds. Sometimes, as with anything, there'll be a malfunction, but I guess that's just live theatre!”
“I've got fifteen costume changes in the show,” Green explains. “It's just endless! We travel with four people in our wardrobe department, one of whom is my dresser, and then in each town we have local dressers join as well.”
“It's almost choreographed, in a sense,” adds Bailey, “so you have to put your arm in one place and your leg in another while people dress you.”
Meanwhile, others in the ensemble prefer to work out their own ways of managing the changes.
“I like to find my own rhythm in each venue, so I do everything myself now,” says Astbury. “The drag make-up is the hardest aspect of it - you're gluing your eyebrows down and contouring the face as well as doing eyeshadow and mascara. It takes me about 45 minutes to do it.”
Add to this wacky wardrobe a giant lipstick, two mirror balls, a coffin, a Kylie doll and some sensational lighting by Nick Richings, and you've got yourself a stylish set-up fit for a queen. Of course, that's before we even get onto the light-up, faux fur-lined bus herself. As tough as performing in the show may be, surrounded by all this, it'd take a tight-lipped sort not to be swept up in the jubilant campness of it all.
“I think the best thing about this production is that the audience can tell how much fun we have,” says Bailey. “We all get on really well, and I think that comes through in the performances. The show is absolutely crazy and I'm tired every day, but it's so rewarding and really worth it.”
More importantly, there's meaning to the madness. Behind the glitter, feathers and mascara is a message of tolerance, friendship and love. Once a bold story bravely promoting acceptance, Priscilla now stands as a testimony to how far we've come in recent years. It's hard to overstate the cultural shifts we've witnessed since 1994 with regards to LGBT rights, but nevertheless, Priscilla's celebration of individuality continues to resonate with audiences today, some of whom might see in its characters' triumph a reflection of real-world victories for the LGBT community.
“When the film first came out, I remember it being quite out there and edgy,” says Green, “but of course, you look at it now and it isn't any more. I also saw the show when it opened in the West End, and I think a lot has changed even since then. I'm amazed at how accepting audiences are nowadays. I think this story really stirs up something profound in them. Some nights it's an absolute riot! I've never before done anything that's so obviously given so much pleasure to an audience.”
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert shows at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Mon 2 to Sat 7 May 2016.
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