All hail Priscilla! While the eponymous bus might be Queen of the Desert, all the incredible divas in this musical performance deserve to rule our nightlife – for they when they command their adoring subjects (us, the audience) to have fun, the result is whooping, whistling, singing, and dancing in the aisles (note: we all had to show a Covid Pass to get in). After a long period of closure – a staggering 525 days - the New Theatre is back in business, and what a perfect welcome party.
From the moment the opening chords of It’s Raining Men kicked in the whole performance felt like being part of one of those really BIG big nights out – the sort you chuckle about decades later, with anecdotes involving sequins, feathers and fights, and a misty-eyed gaze every time you hear I Will Survive on the radio. The music is central to energy and chutzpah of Priscilla. It’s loud, proud and dominated by the heavyweights of 60s, 70s, and 80s disco and pop – including I Say a Little Prayer, Boogie Wonderland, Venus and What’s Love Got To Do With It?
The terrific trio at the heart of the story - supreme Aussie Queens Mitzi (AKA Tick), Bernadette, and Felicia (AKA Adam) – combined impeccable comic timing, stellar singing, and delicious dancing with real warmth and vulnerability. We were swept up in their adventure, and laughing along with the withering one-liners, but we were also made to care about them, so that when the occasional quiet, tender moment happened the entire audience seemed to coo ‘aw’ in unison.
As Mitzi, Edwin Ray perfectly portrayed a person trying to resolve two vital but potentially conflicting parts of who they are: drag performer and dad. Miles Western’s Bernadette had a wonderful mix of class, dignity and full showgirl glamour, and Nick Hayes was every bit the perky plaything who sometimes doesn’t know when to stop. They carried the show like true divas – every time they appeared, the energy in the room rose another notch, which was no mean feat given the vitality and verve of the fantastic ensemble.
With the music being such a central feature of the show, a special mention needs to go to singers Claudia Kariuki, Aiesha Pease and Rosie Glossop, who provided the real vocal powerhouse behind the hits – they gave me the same shivers of delight you get from a great bit of Motown or Shirley Bassey in full flow. Divas in every sense!
Costume designer Charlie Cusick-Smith feels like the hidden star of this show – as we were treated to an incredible feast of ideas, from cake dresses to a look I would describe as ‘disco-courtesans from outer space’ – and Phil R. Daniels set design made sure Priscilla herself was not left out of the action. I particularly loved her pink glitter make-over in response to bigoted redneck graffiti.
Amidst the songs and spectacle there were also little acknowledgements of the challenges faced by our heroines: only feeling safe in the city; the risk of being physically attacked; the complications of pursuing parenthood; conditional versions of ‘acceptance’.
There was something about seeing a big old theatre come back to life which really tugged at my heartstrings. People are so in need of this kind of enjoyment – and I cannot think of a better show than Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical to help Oxford rediscover its groove. The team behind this production have pulled out all the stops and delivered an explosively joyous experience: one which I hope people go to see, because it feels like we all need this. Everyone deserves to feel like a Queen, and if you take a trip with Priscilla, you will.