NE Musicals York in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Sunday, 7.30pm nightly plus 2.30pm matinees, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
YOU must have seen the lipstick-pink banners plastered all over town, pronouncing NE Musicals York’s hotter-than-July production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert.
“With a cast of 30 and more than 300 costumes, this is not just a bus ride, it’s a two-hour rollercoaster of a ride,” promises creative director and producer Steve Tearle, his beard shaved off to play veteran drag queen Bernadette Bassenger, the Terence Stamp role in Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film that gave rise to this musical spin-off.
Stamp famously gave transgender Bernadette an apples-and-pears Cockney accent despite the setting of the Australian Outback. Blonde-wigged North Easterner Tearle goes for Aussie, although he is sometimes closer to Newcastle-upon-Tyne than Newcastle, New South Wales, but he carries off Bernadette’s regal disdain with such aplomb in his swaggering strut that it matters not a jot.
What’s more, in the tradition of Berwick Kaler’s pantomime dame, Tearle is never averse to ad-libbing, breaking down the fourth wall to comment on one line he dislikes having to say and later pleading to borrow his co-star’s wig to cover his shaven head when he had left off his hairpiece in a rushed costume change, duly bringing the house down.
Both moments in Wednesday’s opening night were very much in keeping with NE Musicals York’s determination for everyone – cast and audience alike – to have a fun, fabulous time, whether being taken by the hand to join in a country dance in the aisles or being a lucky recipient of a gift bag containing a pink ping-pong ball and Ginger Nuts biscuits in a nod to one of the show’s most memorable lines.
Tearle’s direction has gone for spectacle, glamour, flamboyance, drama, boldness and pride, rather than technical perfection, especially in the singing, and is rewarded with performances full of vitality and emotional clout and bags of ballsy humour too.
Big number after big number, from It’s Raining Men to I Love The Night Life, I Will Survive to Hot Stuff, MacArthur Park to the Finally finale, are exuberantly choreographed by Ellie Roberts, and the drag costumes grow ever louder and prouder.
Elliott and co-writer Allan Scott’s musical retains the film’s fearless humanity, frank, fruity humour and fabulous feathered finery while adding a Kylie medley for Tom Henshaw’s Felicia and so many dancefloor fillers.
Yet for all that peacock parade and the novelty of a bus on stage, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert is all the better for wearing its heart on its sleeve in its tale of the tiffs and the tantrums, the tears and the fears, the triumphs and the terrors as the three drag queens, Tearle’s waspish Bernadette, Henshaw’s reckless young Adam/Felicia Jollygoodfellow and Finley Butler’s Tick/Mitzi, journey from Sydney to Alice Springs across the Oz outback for Tick to meet Benji (Matthew Musk), the son he has always found excuses never to be with.
Subtlety is not to the fore in Priscilla, but both the script and Tearle’s direction provide just enough, not least in Bernadette’s burgeoning bond with mechanic Bob (James O’Neill) and Tick’s reunion with wife Marion (Melissa Boyd).
Ali Butler-Hind is a scream as Cynthia, Bob’s mail-order bride with her ping pong ball-firing party trick to M’s Pop Muzik. Perri-Ann Barley, Aileen Stables and Julie Blackburn’s Divas, Jack Hambleton’s Miss Understanding and the ensemble relish every scene.
Scott Phillips’s orchestra glistens as brightly as his attire in this Tearle twirl of a dazzling show that parks the bus so much more positively than Jose Mourinho ever did.
By Charles Hutchinson