Oliver Thornton, Tony Sheldon, and Jason Donovan
in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
(© Tristram Kenton)
Oliver Thornton, Tony Sheldon, and Jason Donovan
in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
(© Tristram Kenton)
With the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of La Cage aux Folles doing brisk business at London's Playhouse Theatre, is there room for another musical celebration of drag culture in the West End? The answer, as proved by Simon Phillips' production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- a musical staging of the popular 1994 Australian film -- is definitely yes, even if the show eschews anything resembling emotional nuance for an explosion of huge hair, teetering heels, outrageous costumes, crude humor, lip synching and a dash of audience participation. Subtlety is left in the dust and spectacle is the thing - and it is undeniably spectacular.

The book by Alan Scott and Stephen Elliot, the film's original screenwriter, is as thin as a false eyelash. Drag queen Tick (Jason Donovan) needs to get from Sydney to Alice Springs to visit his estranged wife and the six-year-old son who's never known him. Having been offered a chance to perform at the casino run by his one-time wife, he calls on his friend, the middle-aged transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon, who manages to transcend caricature and give the production a heart) to accompany him.

The traveling line-up is completed by the barb-tongued Adam (Oliver Thornton), who performs on stage as Felicia, and doesn't appear to have an off switch. For reasons that are never apparent, they decide to make this journey through the hostile Australian bush in a rickety bus, which they christen Priscilla and paint a glittering pink.

To complain about the flimsiness of the narrative is to miss the point: the story is there primarily to provide a framework for a string of familiar pop songs -- "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "Don't Leave Me This Way", and, of course, "I Will Survive" -- which are performed with the help of a trio of strong-voiced divas who regularly descend angelically from above.

While there are a couple of comparatively low-key moments, the majority of numbers end up with, say, a troupe of back-up dancers dressed as giant cupcakes (Lizzy Gardiner's costumes are quite magnificently over the top) or with Adam clad in a white sequinned body suit perched atop the bus and mouthing an aria from La Traviata as a blue silk train billows behind him.

In between the songs and innuendo, there's a nod to the fact that away from the big cities, life can be rather dicey for those who stand out as different. Indeed, outback Australia is painted in a particularly unflattering light. But the few occasions when reality threatens to puncture Priscilla's bright bubble are quickly brushed aside in favor of another burst of Boogie Wonderland.