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Carry on camping

Stephan Elliot’s drag queen classic is the latest film to get a West End makeover

There was a period, long before Heston Blumenthal became famous for his culinary conjuring, when everything from KitKats to breakfast cereals ended up as ice cream. It was surely only a matter of time, I felt, before the New Statesman relaunched as an ice lolly. Currently, everything aspires to be a West End musical: Shampoo, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty . . . and now Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Released in 1994, this was a highly successful Australian film that related the travels and travails of three professional drag queens – one bisexual, one gay and one transsexual – driving from the relative safety of Sydney to Alice Springs. Although it showed plenty of their routines, it was nearer a road movie or a gay buddy movie than a musical. A musical is what it has become, however.

It is not a bad night out in town. The star is in place, by which I mean Priscilla – the converted school bus re-created as a revolving cutaway by the designer, Brian Thomson. When the queens paint it lavender to cover over some homophobic graffiti, its side lights up in pink neon. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s costumes are fabulous and there are more of them than in a Palladium panto. All Australia, including emus and the Sydney Opera House, ends up on these men’s heads. And, although the drag queens for the most part only have to mime, the evening is more than karaoke because they mime to a trio of real singers who descend, glittering, from the rafters.

Not a bad night . . . but it should have been a great one, building up to a hysteria of camp and feel-good, both of which were distinctly missing on the night I went. Even Jason Donovan, the most famous of the actors playing the queens, looked slightly disappointed, perhaps with himself, at the curtain call (and that despite the now customary standing ovation). The problem is the film. Perhaps because Stephan Elliott has, with Allan Scott, adapted his own movie, we are reminded of it all the time, and of how good it was.

Helpfully, many obviously come to the Palace brimming with the goodwill of folk who have watched it a score of times on video. I’d forgotten, for example, the scene with the exotic Asian dancer and her ping-pong balls. Judging by the raucous reception Kanako Nakano received, no one else in the audience had.

Unhelpfully, however, the physical resemblance Donovan bears to Hugo Weaving, who played Tick in the film, only recalls how much complexity the film star brought to a man who knew he had left not only his wife and child in Alice Springs, but much of himself. The family’s reunion at the end of the musical looks like unearned sentiment and Tick’s son’s acceptance of his unorthodox daddy like a liberal wet dream. In the film it is given credibility by making Tick’s wife a sassy, tough-talking, swings-both-ways lesbian. Here Mrs Tick is a scrumptious Kylie Minogue lookalike, played by Amy Field.

Nor does Tony Sheldon as Bernadette (although he looks wonderful: a cross between Mae West and Bette Davis) have space between the songs to match the pathos and dignity Terence Stamp so surprisingly brought to the role of an ageing and recently widowed transsexual. As for Felicia, the farthest out of the queens, Oliver Thornton makes him as irritating as required but fails to find the vulnerability mined by Guy Pearce. By the end of the film, we understood Bernadette had found in him his own son – as well as
a lover in the unlikely form of the garage mechanic Bob (robustly played on stage by Clive Carter). Here their bitchy relationship remains unresolved.

In so many ways the musical is less than the film: it carries no suggestion of the Aids hysteria of the early 1990s; the homophobia in the mining town is stylised rather than threatening; the strange rapport the drag artists have with the local Aboriginal people is absent; and we lose several of the best jokes in the film, including the one about the dog called Herpes because “if she’s good, she heals”. Also: no Abba music. That is presumably for contractual reasons but these do not excuse the excision of the film’s famous Abba turd, a souvenir lovingly obtained from a backstage loo by infatuated Felicia. But the musical’s greatest deficit, unavoidable though it probably was, is that it is only half there: Priscilla turns up, but not the desert – the natural wilderness that dwarfs, in scale, colour and exoticism, even the most outrageous efforts of our heroes.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue