Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Palace Theatre, London

Donovan's disco divas are a drag
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The Independent Culture

I will survive, I'm sure, but the Priscilla wave that caught the Palace Theatre last night was a pretty strong blast of lethal elements: costumes that would have looked dated in a 1970s Talk of the Town floor show, a sick-making reunion between Jason Donovan as a drag queen and his little boy by a real-life woman (a rarity in this show) and a book that rhymes hormone with whore moan and demands that somebody shuts his von Trapp.

Yes, folks, it's the most successful show in the history of Australian and New Zealand musical theatre. It puts the glory into Gloria and the gay into Gaynor and it plays other disco favourites while a group of friends traverse the desert for a date in Alice Springs and three divas descend like Monteverdi cherubs (not) on a hot date.

At one point these divas launch into a karaoke version of Sempre Libre from La Traviata, which is no less nonsensical than a full-blown staging of the most meaningless pop song ever written, "Macarthur Park", in which someone leaves a cake out in the rain and Donovan gets worked up in green pyjamas and the chorus boys sashay around with candles on their heads.

Donovan, it has to be said, seems to have lost what little stage personality he had developed as Joseph in the Deamcoat, and turned, well, rancid – while the long-standing Australian drag queen Tony Sheldon, who starts off promisingly as a dead-ringer for Kim Cattrall and descends into big-mouthed anonymity, and Oliver Thornton as the wicked Felicia – look like Friday night acts at the long-ago Vauxhall Tavern.

So, what is this show? It post-dates Mamma Mia! as a reverse attempt (not very good 1996 movie translated to Aussie musical in 2006) to cash in on a juke-box musical format without much wit or cleverness. It settles for a tired old showbiz camp that is acceptable to suburban and Home Counties audiences. It references the Village People. It sort of stinks.

"Good evening, ladies and ladies," we are addressed at the start over the tannoy, "place all your purses under your seats." An obelisk shaped like a lipstick moves upstage. The divas descend from Sydney Harbour Bridge, cleverly evoked by legendary designer Brian Thomson. But that's as good visually as it gets.

The van they must all travel in appears in a surround of pink drapes. En route they bump into horrible people in low-down bars, including a ghastly old lesbian who rotates her breasts like animated bean bags.

Simon Phillips's production is slick, well-organised and fairly enjoyable. But I don't know who it is aimed at. The journey from Sydney to Ayres Rock is a relatively modest one, but this lot have been caught up in a disco fever that doesn't justify their travel passes. Big hand, though, for the finale costumes of shellfish and jungle animals that suddenly appeared as if by osmosis in a presentational void.