Stephan Elliot's 1994 film transfers to the Grand Opera House stage chock full of pathos and pop songs
If one of Terence Stamp's great movie roles is sexy Sergeant Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd, another is unquestionably transsexual Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Stephan Elliott's 1994 film revived Stamp's career, and in the musical version of the story, which has just opened at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Richard Grieve's account of Bernadette remains a highlight.
He/she navigates a touching path between losing husband Trumpet – whose nickname refers to something you really don't want to know about – and finding true love with ordinary Bob. Instead of Jason Donovan, who has toured with this production, we got Noel Sullivan of Hear'say as Tick, aka Mitzi the drag queen, journeying towards his ex-wife and son in Alice Springs. 'The best mistake I ever made,' as he says with a rueful smile.
This is a road show with a real difference. The third gender-bending musketeer, Adam/Felicia, is the wild child of the group, determined to shock – a girl who wants to have fun and naively doesn't always understand that other people's bigotry just might get in the way. Graham Weaver is energetic and brings real edge to the role.
After an overture that begins with the company belting out 'It's Raining Men' – with an accompanying chorus line who soon lose their macs – we get 'What's Love got to Do With It?' As it turns out, quite a lot, in the end. Here chanteuse Miss Understanding is particularly lithe, a real mover.
This is followed by a scene of real tenderness in which Tick makes phone contact with Marion, his ex, and sings 'I Say A Little Prayer' to his six-year-old son, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. That's often the nature of high camp – a lot of brittle posturing with quite a bit of heart and sentimentality underneath.
As the three intrepid voyagers get on board Priscilla, their transport of delight, to make the trip to Alice Springs, there's a lot of emotion riding on board with them. Along the way they encounter some of the tribes of Australia, including the very machismo inhabitants of Broken Hill.
Here the three divas got short shrift from the rednecks and sing 'True Colours', declaring their determination to let nobody – not even a foul-mouthed female bar owner with the most mobile chest in Christendom –prevent them from reclaiming this country as their own.
But the scene in the mining town when Felicia is worked over and is only saved by the fourth man on the bus, Bob the engineer, makes you understand the depth of homophobia and why the girls have to talk dirty. Giles Watling's Bob is a good foil to the bigots.
The overall sweep of the second act, which takes our trio to Ayers Rock – a bucket list ambition of Felicia's – is positively life enhancing. The tempo is upped, the longueurs between hits cease to matter, and the comedy is sharp. Tonight's audience particularly likes Bob's mail order wife, Cynthia, who has a way with a ping pong ball...
But there is quite a lot of pathos here, too, and a sense that finding yourself when you're a drag queen isn't easy. For we are reminded that this trip from Sydney to Alice Springs is also a quest. What do the travellers gain? Self-knowledge, of course, with Tick able to deliver an Elvis song ('I Didn't Love You Like I Should', naturally) to his son Benji, Bernadette able to contemplate settling down with Bob, and Felicia proud and diva-ish. In the end our principals support Tick in his new life and stop endlessly talking about Kylie.
The costumes in this production are incredible, with a personal favourite being the dancing paintbrushes when the team busy themselves with painting out vile slogans and graffitit that the locals added to Priscilla.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert isn't Sondheim, it's brash and in your face, but it nevertheless manages to deal with important issues while revelling in a mainly 1980s soundtrack that should get everybody dancing.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until August 3.