Priscilla The Party!

HERE at Outernet

A quantum core of flashing double-storey screens sheathed in a golden skin, and partly to blame for the aggressive modernisation of Soho’s historic Denmark Street, the Outernet building is a diverse piece of 21st-century architecture. However, Simon Phillips’ clever re-staging of a beloved musical in the custom-built glinting theatrical space seems a stroke of PR genius.

If you are unlucky enough not to have fallen in love with the Priscilla 1994 film or caught the subsequent 2006 musical the best way to describe both is fair dinkum (Australian for unquestionably good). The Land Down Under’s highest-grossing musical to date, seen by eight million people across 135 cities, has also won a whole host of prizes including the Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Costume Design.

Basically everywhere the pink bus sets its wheels, it is showered with tiny gleaming statues! There have been bomb threats from religious groups, performances in the Philippines and Singapore during a time when same-sex activity was still illegal, and face-offs against police at an LGBTQIA+ rally in South Korea. This tale about two drag queens and one trans woman’s journey across the Australian outback, which has resonated across several art forms, now sashays into new heights.

I mean technically it’s new lows, as the venue is completely underground but that doesn’t sound as good, does it? HERE at Outernet, however, is very far from a dripping basement. It has been transformed into the Cockatoo Club. Pink and sequins line every surface, and neon signs tempt with bar food and themed cocktails throughout. This fuchsia-hued cavern seems a fitting home for a musical utterly fabulous in its grotty charm.

Now turning something into a ‘party’ theoretically speaking is a lot more complex than just letting people get drunk during the show. Mamma Mia! has had success with a sit-down dining experience, but this set-up is much more in the vein of the recent Guys & Dolls staging at the Bridge Theatre. Pink-clad ushers ‘dance-shunt’ us out of the way as LED-ringed boxes swing into various patterns (at alarming speeds), although most of the big scenes happen on a thrust runway stage in the centre. The constant moving (and flowing drinks) keep the energy high and appropriately bar-like.

Amazingly, there is no negative impact on the story, its aims or poignancy. Owain Williams is Mitzi, a drag queen travelling across the desert to be reunited with his six-year-old son and play a gig in Alice Springs. He ropes in a legend of Les Girls (a trans performing group) Bernadette (Dakota Starr) and youthfully snarky Felicia (Reece Kerridge) to fill out his act.

Along the way they constantly battle one another, along with various adversities (weather, human and mechanical), and experience the highest of highs, and lowest of lows, finding love in unexpected places and discovering more about themselves than they thought possible. All three are grand talents. Starr has gravitas as the no-nonsense matriarch. Kerridge demonstrates exuberance and naivety as the baby and Williams keeps the whole thing ticking along no matter what is thrown at them.

The story itself is a searing mix of genuine humanity and slicing wit from Stephan Elliot, Allan Scott and Phil Scott. Look forward to the film’s musical jukebox bangers (‘I Will Survive’, ‘Go West’) and some updated selections (including a nod to Lady Gaga).

Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel’s costumes are everything we remember from the film, but more. Yes, the classic inflated wigs feature but the new chorus’ skyward beehives and Australian fauna outfits give a lovely swing of whimsy. Speaking of which, Grace Galloway, Gracie Lai and Sara Louise (our Dreamgirls-style backing divas) and Trevor Ashley as Gaye Cliché (narrator and general queen of disrepute) help the shifting sands of dead end towns bluster along.

The use of a large screen and rather simple video work instead of a set is understandable given the space, and not too disappointing. Another odd choice is the use of eye make-up masks for the constantly changing intricate lewks for some of the chorus and leads. I understand their existence, but it isn’t something I ever want to see again, utterly terrifying!

But these are small gripes. There has been a recent wave of whining about audience behaviour in West End theatres, and I agree that in a sit-down setting, raucousness is out of place. But musicals like Priscilla came from lively Australian LGBTQIA+ venues and the battle and Queer joy these spaces came to represent. To allow people to drink, be merry and dance seems like a wonderful continuation of that. Grab your glitziest outfit and be ready for a night like no other, though this recommendation comes with a warning that you might be sobbing on your friend’s shoulder at points, I know my plus-one certainly was.