I have been waiting to write this for about a month. My less-than-competent theatre reviews are the posts I have the most fun with. So, when I went to see a preview of the stage version of Priscilla Queen of the desert a month ago, I knew I had to see it again before I could spill emotions all over the screen comfortably enough. Boy, it was worth waiting for!
I had never seen a preview of a musical before. It is so special to see how, over time, people settle into their roles, how the flow gets tighter, and more space for enjoyment becomes available on stage.
New Wimbledon Theatre is where I hid one Saturday afternoon in March to forget about some ugly stuff and realised this was my safe place. I have been hiding in theatres ever since, as often as finances and childcare nonsense will allow. In hiding, I found bits of myself I could barely remember anything about, threads of kindness to hang on to, and waterbombs of joy I still struggle to believe are possible.
Priscilla was bound to become the special show of this season for me. I was and am a big fan of the 1994 film. Not just because I have yet to see anything more sensational than Guy Pearce in blue lip and emu headpiece, but because everything about the film is spectacular – the scenery, the performances, the colours, the costumes, the point, the constant balancing act between real and surreal. I wondered what it would look like on stage. Well, I’m telling you, it looks other-worldly! If you get no joy from disco music and glitter and colours, then feel free to move on, this post is irrelevant to you. But last night I let myself drop into a seat that was way too close to the stage for my comfort zone (the seating plan at booking showed three more rows in front of me, which had – it turns out – been taken away to make room for the musicians) and just waited to be dazzled.
I have to say, I feel sorry for all the cast members who had to dance at my end of the stage, because I couldn’t help smile idiotically out of sheer delight from beginning to end, which must have looked rather disquieting (although possibly not as bad as being asleep!). It is no surprise to anyone that the three leads are incredibly good. I will admit that, on first viewing, I was a bit hesitant about how Mitzi’s role had been softened and smoothened compared to the one played by Hugo Weaving in the film. But then I reminded myself this was nothing to do with the film and actually Joe McFadden is perfect in generating a Tick/Mitzi who is warm and gentle and a finely-balanced mix of down-to-earth and over-the-top. Miles Western’s Bernadette is so brilliant I am considering resourcing the script so I can get my foreign brain to understand every nuance and undertone in her lines – which are delivered with a timing that I’m sure is any actor’s dream. As for Nick Hayes’ Felicia (I’m biased, of course), with all due respect for her enviable derrière which is an undeniable crowd-pleaser (repressed much, British male audiences?), I really don’t know which number to pick between her visually magnificent entrance as Venus, her performance as Violetta (from Verdi’s opera La Traviata) atop of Priscilla, and her heartbreaking misadventures on Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff. The three Divas (Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease) give mindboggling vocal performances throughout the show. Dan Fletcher as Bob the mechanic and every single member of the ensamble give it everything they’ve got. In particular, the incredible dancer (Jak Allen-Anderson?) playing young Bernadette (amongst a dozen other roles), and the welcoming Miss Understanding (Kevin Yates), setting the right energy very early in the show, are a real treat. I still don’t have everybody down, but I have made it a point in the past to acknowledge as many people as possible, because these mammouth shows are a team effort and not one-person-bands with some pretty backing vocals like a few commentators seem to think. One of my favourite parts of last night’s show was watching two stage assistants (forgive me if that’s not what you’re called – I’m a profane member of the audience) helping Felicia off the top of Priscilla and through a costume change ON STAGE, hiding behind the bus, and waiting patiently in the very same spot, props in hand, until the next scene change. I was in awe! (By the way, you can’t really see them, it’s just that I am nosy and often look away from the action only to marvel at the incredible effort that goes into making things happen in the right spot and at the right time.)
Twenty minutes in and the place wasn’t even a theatre anymore. At interval, the delightful guy sitting next to me was already shaking his head in disbelief and commenting on how amazing the whole cast were and how he didn’t want it to end. By the end of the show, having collectively been reminded of the bitter truth of discrimination and prejudice and then gently returned to celebrating life and love and hope and drags, the room was one giant party. And this time I was that awkward person (there’s usually one), torn between explosive disco fever and British theatre etiquette, who just stopped caring about composure and jumped up to dance rather gracelessly and unashamedly to Cece Peniston and Gloria Gaynor (oh yes, the mash-ups are divine!). And there we were, dancing and singing, over a thousand of us. Auntie Felicia waved in our direction (if that’s because her family were sitting right behind me, I don’t want to know) and with that wave the buzz and love of performing and the joy of witnessing performance smashed into one another and made us all free and whole for a moment.
This morning I was speaking to a counsellor who helps me with the more tricky stuff in my current life. I said “I want to start with some goodness before we talk about the rubbish bits”. I told her a story of glitter and glamour and theatre wonder. She wept. She said that had never happened to her during a session.
Joy is a powerful thing. Sometimes it comes in high heels and fake eyelashes.