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Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

In a world where tolerance of others is in increasingly short – nay perilous – supply, it’s good to be reminded of the empowering virtues of friendship, loyalty and acceptance.

After all, as Elvis Costello sang (and no, he’s not the Elvis who gets a nod in amongst the show’s busy soundtrack), what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?

They’re three things that seem in short supply at moments on the Priscilla roadtrip as mismatched trio Tick/Mitzi (Joe McFadden), Adam/Felicia (Nick Hayes) and Bernadette (Miles Western) embark on their dusty odyssey from Sydney to Alice Springs.

Tick is on his way to meet his young son, Bernadette is escaping personal grief, and Adam dreams of scaling Ayers Rock in drag while giving his best Kylie impression, leading to perhaps the story’s most famous line – “that’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.”

Priscilla the musical follows in the footsteps of Priscilla the film which, believe it or not, came out 25 years ago. Of course, since then Ayers Rock has been renamed Uluru, and climbing it is now forbidden, in drag or not.

The Divas. Photos by Darren Bell

Still if scaling the rock is no longer cool, then drag is certainly hot at the moment, both on screen thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and with the success of stage shows like Kinky Boots and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – the latter coming to the Empire next summer.

Designers Charlie Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels may have created a relatively sparse new set, but they’ve gone to town on the costumes, some of which are spectacular, some outlandish and a few others which are frankly deeply unflattering.

Strangely, for a show that’s so musically and visually flamboyant, this Priscilla sometimes feels oddly underwhelming and slightly scrappy in places, particularly in the first half.

Saying that, the big ensemble numbers like Go West and the ebullient Colour My World are delivered with infectious energy by a cast of long-legged Amazons, and headed by the three sequin-clad ‘divas’ who also provide powerful vocals for the trio of travelling artistes to mime to.

Miles Western is quietly affecting as the transgender Bernadette, while Nick Hayes absolutely storms it as the exuberant but recklessly impulsive Adam/Felicia.

Joe McFadden doesn’t look quite so at home in drag, but 20 years after Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll he shows he can still hold a tune, and his character’s interaction with his estranged son Benji feels heartfelt and moving.

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