Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Date 8th April 2017
Society South Manchester AOS
Venue Z Arts Centre
Type of Production Musical
Director Kevin Proctor
Musical Director John G Barry
Choreographer Kevin Proctor


Author: David Slater

This musical, new to the amateur scene (this being the North's premiere amateur production no less) is based on the 1994 film of the same name and tells the less than gripping story of a trio of drag artists who make their way into the Australian Outback on the titular bus. The show is, alas, an example of that most dreaded of all modern musical phenomena, the 'jukebox musical' - something which for me always conjures up thoughts of karaoke night at Heckmondwike Working Mens Club - and almost always has the inevitable result of drawing out the inner 'hen party' hovering just beneath the surface of any audience member who seems compelled to join in with the pop tunes they recognise or, even worse, start gyrating about in the aisles while doing so: with no wish to start this show report with any more unfairly personal animosity towards an entire genre which just  happens to be not to my individual taste however, I shall move on apace!

 The talented team at South Manchester AOS made the brave decision to take on this technically challenging production as their new home at the Z Arts Centre affords more space to mount more elaborate productions; the demands of this show including the need for a bus, several rather arch dance routines requiring the help of an army of supernumeraries, several bars, a casino and the need to suggest something of the scale of the wide open spaces of the Australian desert. With there seeming to be a need for a costume change almost every five minutes, heavy demands were also put on the wardrobe and props departments too, not to mention the wigs and makeup - and ping pong balls (don't ask!) - which complemented each new flamboyant display. It has to be said that the society rose to the challenge admirably and the show certainly had the blowsy élan needed to do justice to the whimsical little tale. I won't mention the unsavoury word here dear reader but proverbially, the offending noun in question is said to be impossible to polish; this show proved that despite the vast quantity of glitter you could try to roll it in, there's always the distinct possibility of still being left with the vaguest aroma of blighted artistic ambition.

 The delightfully monikered Cock-a-Too Club was the starting point of our odyssey and the stroll - or should that be shimmy? - through pop music's camp classics began with 'Its Raining Men' (naturally!) and the ensemble throwing a mean shape or two (which I'm given to understand is the contemporary argot for disco dancing) as we were introduced to our chorus of marvellously attired Divas. A very special mention must go to Helen Attisha, Stephanie Niland and Celia Lee as the talented trio who kept up a wonderful performance throughout the production and were definitely the show standouts for me. This really was terrific work from the girls who impressed with a great series of vocal displays throughout the show. Alex Re gave a delightfully tongue in cheek turn as drag act 'Miss Understanding' before reappearing in the guise of two different characters later on in the story, demonstrating his versatility. It isn't long however before we meet our three heroes/heroines; Anthony, Adam and Bernadette as played by Jack Hawkins, Ollie Kaiper-Leach and Andrew Higson. A great deal is demanded of our triumvirate as they have to drive the show, elicit our sympathy, amuse us, entertain us and dominate the stage throughout. For the most part, this was something that they managed very well indeed and they all provided excellent company on their moderately picaresque journey.

The McGuffin at the heart of this musical tale is the need for Tick (Jack Hawkins) to mount a show at his estranged wife's casino in Alice Springs and be reunited with his son Benji: his pals Adam, the flamboyant young drag artist (Ollie Kaiper-Leach) and Bernadette, the 'old pro' (Andrew Higson) are roped in to provide support. There then follows a comical trip as our bickering drag queens bumble their way through the Outback in their own inimitable style, climbing over -  or at least, circumnavigating - various obstacles along the way. Jill Ratcliffe gave a marvellous performance as the rough and ready Shirley (my favourite supporting performance of the show) and Sarah Teale brought a much needed splash of broad humour as the very excitable Cynthia; Jill and Sarah are two very accomplished performers who really added a great deal to the production. One of the real strengths of the society is the quality of character acting from the talented team of players and thankfully, this was once more in evidence here; another good example being Phillipa Shellard as Marion who again excelled in really bringing her character to life. Colin Titley gave a good account of himself as helpful Bob, the mechanically minded Aussie, who finds a growing connection with Bernadette as the show progresses; this was nicely handled and not overplayed, which made for a more realistic relationship between the two characters than might otherwise have been the case. Rounding off the supporting cast, a special mention must also be made of Simon Rowbotham who was rather marvellous as Farrah, the comically ropey drag queen at the Cock-a-Too Club. For such a small role to linger so long in the memory - here was a perfect summation of every clapped-out, tawdry 'bad drag' act it has ever been my misfortune to encounter - is a testament to the care attention paid to bringing even the smallest character role to the stage.

The show bounces its merry way along from scene to scene and location to location - each one as wearily familiar in tone as the last unfortunately - with all the bright and breezy nonchalance of tinsel carried along in the breeze. The thin plot and the rather monotonous (and flat) dialogue means that a production of 'Priscilla' has to rest on its 'look': choreography, lighting, scenery, props and make-up all have to be of a really high standard, otherwise we are left with a show which roughly approximates a rather outré school disco. Fortunately, this production pulled out all the stops to make the experience a visually enjoyable one for a very receptive and enthusiastic audience. The conveyor-belt of bizarre and baroque outfits which boogied their way across the stage came thick and fast and one whirling, glitzy dance routine followed on from another at a breathless pace. Kevin Proctor must have worked long and hard to perfect each ritzy, razzle-dazzle dance routine and the enthusiasm of the cast came over the footlights in waves, infectiously stirring  the audience to raptures of appreciation with their joie de vivre.

'Priscilla' herself found her way around the stage very well and given the relatively bijou performance space (considering the show's very raison d'être requires a bus to be manhandled around the stage) this was something of an achievement in itself. There was a knowing nod to the fact that (far too) many of the big numbers seemed to be bolted on to suit the choice of music plucked seemingly willy-nilly from the bran tub marked 'back catalogue of pop tunes which have since garnered a reputation for high camp'. Fancy painting a bus? How about a gang of people dressed as paintbrushes dancing to 'Colour My World'?! A cake carelessly left out in the rain? Cue some people dressed as cakes and - you guessed it - 'MacArthur Park'! Setting off on a bus from Sydney to Alice Spings? Go west young man, 'Go West'... You get the idea. Sprinkled with twinkling choreography which took in a number of different styles ranging from Busby Berkeley to disco and 'hip hop' (so I'm told), large numbers of gyrating thespians dressed in all manner of colourful - and cumbersome - outfits were marshalled very effectively, all in a limited space: full marks Kevin. The punishing dance routines were made all the more impressive when one takes into account the restrictions placed upon the performers by the outlandish costumes, not to mention the high heels!

I have to say that I found that some of the show's themes - what one might call the 'underlying conscience' of the production - were often somewhat awkwardly or problematically handled. I'm quite certain that this is a fault of the show rather than this production of it however but there were occasions when I thought that perhaps a different treatment or slightly different approach might have helped things along a little. Despite three solid performances from our lead characters, I never really felt that there was a real bond between them, nor did I really understand why it was that their journey should be so fraught with outbursts of personal animosity. Incidents of potential drama in the show were often thrown away as a result and the emotional impact, or any real feelings of connection were thus weakened and the exploration of some of the issues which were raised at several points in the show were blunted as a result. That said, Jack Hawkins as Anthony/Tick was so thoroughly likeable that it was impossible not to warm to him, Ollie Kaiper-Leach as Adam/Felicia flounced and amused the audience at every turn and Andrew Higson's Bernadette added the much needed chalk to Felicia's cheese. Unfortunately, this musical's natty trick of having a character lip-syncing to an extract from Verdi's 'La Traviata' only succeeded in highlighting the gulf between the two artistic forms and the possibilities of real human drama and emotion which were missing from the entertainment before us.

There were many good things to take away from this production however. The sheer amount of hard work which went into mounting this technically challenging piece was breathtaking and, more than that, the end result was slick and impressive. Music under the baton of John G Barry was pin-sharp and sounded sumptuous and professional throughout. The non-stop costume changes were handled seamlessly (and became a feature of the show in their own right) and the enthusiastic ensemble were tireless in their sheer determination to entertain. The cast of supporting players was incredibly strong and provided a solid base for our jolly trio of drag divas to really shine. Changes of scene were handled very well and established each of the different - albeit wearily repetitive - sections of the show cleanly and efficiently. I didn't personally find the Ayers Rock finale quite as edifying as I think was intended but this was more than made up for by the rousing 'disco finale ultimo' where the party atmosphere returned once more, the whole cast revelling in making sure the audience left the auditorium with a spring in their step. This really was a show where the feel good party atmosphere is all important and this production carried it off in spades. The carnival atmosphere was well maintained and provided a very appreciative full house with a sparkling, glittery disco ball of a show: it looked good, sounded good and if it didn't really do anybody any good, isn't that the essence of a guilty pleasure?! As we know, man cannot live by bread alone and this hefty dose of cheese was certainly well received by a large very enthusiastic audience. It's always a pleasure to attend a SMAOS production and both myself and Stuart wish this formidably talented society all the best with their next production.