Theatre review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Playhouse, Edinburgh

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
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IT’S not a pantomime - oh no, it isn’t! Yet there’s never been a panto produced in Scotland that boasted as many dames to the square inch as Simon Phillips’s much-loved touring production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, this year’s Christmas show at the Playhouse; or dressed them in so many fabulous panto-style costumes, from a whole chorus full of dancing paintbrushes, to a sextet of giant cupcakes complete with little inbuilt umbrellas, for a chorus of Someone’s Left The Cake Out In The Rain.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert | Rating: **** | Playhouse, Edinburgh

Like all the best pantos, too, Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott’s stage musical - based on Elliot’s 1994 film of the same name - combines outrageous cross-dressing spectacle with an element of genuine, rebellious agitprop, as the show’s three principal dames - a group of performing drag queens from Sydney, led by Jason Donovan as bisexual Tick - set off on a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs on a ramshackle bus called Priscilla. Along the way, they encounter vicious levels of transphobia and homophobia, as well as unexpected moments of kindness, and sing out loud and proud for a new world of transgender tolerance beyond old rigid boundaries - like the one that, for six years, has kept cross-dressing Tick away from his secret wife and son in Alice.

If this powerful strand of 1990s gender politics helps to hold the show together, though, much of its theatrical appeal is about the sheer extravagance of the spectacle, as not only Donovan, Simon Green and Adam Bailey, as the three main characters, but also a whole dancing chorus of dames, and three fabulous female divas led by Lisa-Marie Holmes, belt their way through a vital playlist of late 20th century classics closely bound up with the history of personal and sexual liberation, from Petula Clark’s Downtown, through an entire Kylie sequence, to anthems like I Will Survive.

For the Edinburgh dates, the cast also includes Karen Dunbar in the cameo role of redneck barmaid Shirley, and Gavin Mitchell, Still Game’s Barman Boaby, in the key role of Bob, the straight-talking bus mechanic who starts up a tender romance with Simon Green’s transsexual Bernadette. And although the sequence involving Bob’s Vietnamese “mail order wife” - a former exotic dancer addicted to popping ping-pong balls out of unexpected places - perhaps strikes a slightly bum note (in every sense), by 2015 standards, everything else about this over-the-top and hugely enjoyable show has its heart in exactly the right place; including a central performance from Jason Donovan that strikes just the right balance between showbiz brashness, and a touching, shy determination, when it comes to re-discovering his precious relationship with his long-lost son.

• Until 2 January