The cast of PriscillaPeter Buncombe

Come for the high heels, lipstick, and Gloria Gaynor, and find yourself transfixed by dancing cupcakes and paintbrushes. Cambridge Operatic Society is taking on Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between Wednesday 30 March and Saturday 2 April 2022 at 19:30.

I sat down in the auditorium on opening night, notebook in hand, watching the auditorium fill with excited members of the public. This is the Society’s first performance since the start of the pandemic: Priscilla, the musical adaptation of Stephan Elliot’s 1994 cult classic, chronicles the road trip of drag queens, Mitzi Mitosis and Felicia, and their transgender friend Bernadette. They hit the road in their campervan, driving across Australia to perform in the Alice Springs and (spoilers) see Mitzi’s son. Along the way, they encounter small town bars, new friends, and hate crime – all in the hopes that they can make it in time for their opening number.

In line with the lip-sync tradition so commonly associated with drag, Priscilla is a jukebox musical, a bona fide playlist of oldie bops, including Hot Stuff, It’s Raining Men, I Will Survive, and even a spot of Elvis at the end. It’s camp, but leans into its campness in a self-assured, confident way that surprised me.


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Congratulations are due for the cast. I feel like Priscilla is the kind of show where a performer can easily get swallowed up by the ridiculousness of the plot, the extroverted, bubbly energy, and the glitzy costumes. That’s particularly the case if you’re feeling self-conscious about being on stage, wondering ‘oh god why am I dressed as a Teletubbie right now’ – and it can show.

Fortunately, everyone in the cast did a fantastic job of embracing the ridiculousness, thus keeping the energy up to match a show that demands energy from its performers. Choreography was sleek and performed confidently by all, and the ensemble did a fantastic job of keeping movement and life in the various bustling bars visited by the drag queens and Bernie. All of this was supported with an expertly-conducted band that sounded professional, and excellent lighting.

“Priscilla is progressive in many important ways, but the show needs some serious updating in its aesthetic choices”

Gareth Mullan’s Mitzi is confident, reactive when her friends make her laugh, and also shines brightest in tender moments. I Say a Little Prayer is delivered intimately to a photo of her son, sounding like a whisper despite the obvious support in Mullen’s belt as he sings at the top of his range. Jacob Nightingale’s Felicia is undoubtedly the star of the show, with Nightingale radiating a magnetic and assertive kind of energy that demands we look at him. I could see his Felicia on RuPaul’s Drag Race for sure. A particular highlight was Venus/Material Girl, when Nightingale possessed the stage with his backup dancers, all clad in very scandalous leather but with the confidence that said 'look at me, I am a drag queen’. And all this confidence never dwindled even despite the problems with Nightingale's microphone pack, which made me like him even more.

Finally, Jeremy Warbrick’s Bernie is sensitive, beautiful, and a powerful woman. She’s not afraid to stand up for herself and her friends, and it makes me so happy to see representation like this as I write this on Trans Day of Visibility (31/03/2022).

Priscilla touches upon difficult topics with humour, and I liked how this humour was acknowledged but that the material was nonetheless treated seriously. Two scenes that I particularly liked: firstly, Warbrick, Mullan, and Nightingale’s approach to a scene where Felicia deadnames Bernie is treated seriously, even if the book of the musical speeds through it, and I felt the gravity of the offence and emotion of the scene despite it being a very small part of Act 1. I also really liked Both Sides Now/True Colours, in which the trio have their bus vandalised with a homophobic slur, and how there was no fluff, no extra choreography – just Mitzi, Felicia, and Bernie holding hands, supporting each other, and lit up by a rainbow of gobos.

Unfortunately, whilst Priscilla is progressive in many important ways, the show needs some serious updating in its aesthetic choices. Go West is obviously YMCA-inspired, but does the number really call for the use of a fake Cherokee headdress? The number, in which the ensemble dance around in caricatures of Dorothy’s costume from Wizard of Oz, is plenty fantastical already and has a YMCA-feel – even without the use of the headdress. The choice to use it rubbed me as insensitive and completely unnecessary because it was used for laughs, and I just felt awkward and uncomfortable watching it as much as the actor wearing it probably felt.

“It’s camp, but leans into its campness in a self-assured, confident way”

Altogether, Priscilla is a sleek show well worth watching for the strong performances from the cast and band, but I hope that by the end of the week, the production team will choose to ditch the headdress so that this show’s important message is not overshadowed.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is showing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Wednesday 30 March - Saturday 2 April 2022