Palace Theatre, London W1
  Opened 23 March, 2009

Some shows, as I’ve remarked before, simply refuse to let you dislike them; they are so full of an infectious joie de vivre that they can turn even the surliest frown upside down. This isn’t one of those. It does not set out to share the fun with us, but to inflict it upon us, and its idea of fun is limited. It’s not about the smile or the chuckle, but the braying guffaw; not about the cheer, but the whoop; not about the sniffle, but about getting you to go, “Awww.” In fact, it’s not about much that the film was about. The basic story – two drag queens and an older transsexual journey in an old coach from Sydney to Alice Springs to do a show and to introduce Tick to his young son – is there, but little more.
Stephan Elliott’s 1994 movie, like its near-contemporaries Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, achieved mainstream crossover because it had a head and a heart in there as well as the campery. The book for this stage version (credited to Elliott and Allan Scott) almost seems intent on stomping on every brain cell in the film, and replacing every iota of sentiment with cheap schlock. When transsexual Bernadette and mechanic Bob are found asleep outdoors beside their cake, the film’s one-liner gag here becomes a big production number of “Macarthur Park”. When Tick’s little nipper Benji signals his acceptance by asking his dad to do Elvis for him, we get a syrupy “Always On My Mind”. The film’s Abba fixation has been replaced (no doubt for Mamma Mia-related clearance reasons) with a Kylie obsession, which gives Jason Donovan a chance to remark coyly that he always fancied her boyfriend in the soap Neighbours, Scott (played, 20-odd years ago, by himself).
Donovan has come a long way since he sued a magazine for libel in 1992 over imputations of homosexuality; he now evidently has a much greater appreciation of camp and/or the power of the pink pound. As Adam (alias Felicia), Oliver Thornton is literally a screaming queen. Tony Sheldon as Bernadette is the least one-dimensional of the bunch, after two years playing the role in various Australian productions. But this is not a show about diversity, or sexuality, or even drag; it indulges in some of drag’s more suspect ambivalence about femaleness, in that of the mere three even remotely significant female characters in the show, two are misogynistic cartoons. No, if you want big frocks and wigs, clapping along to ‘80s boys-town musical numbers and a chance to pretend that you’re being affirmative without actually having to think or feel a damned thing for nearly three hours, this is the show for you. The introduction of a 'Premium Seating' option at £92.50 plus booking charge may be the biggest joke of the evening.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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