TERENCE Stamp once told me that, of all the great roles he had played, one stood tall above the rest, and not just because he was wearing ridiculously high heels and a drag queen’s headdress.
That role was Bernadette, the outrageous transsexual, and voice of reason, in the Oscar-winning 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
“I’m thinking, ‘My God! I’m the best dressed man in Britain. I’m a serious actor. I’m over 50. What am I doing here?’,” he recalled. “Suddenly it was ‘Action!’ and before I knew it I’d done Shake Your Groove Thing... and I was in the stratosphere. From that moment, it became the funest experience in my life.”
It’s an emotion that soap star Richard Grieve can relate to ever since taking on the same role in the touring musical production, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert.
“It’s an incredible role,” he affirms. “A once in a life-time part. I’m 44, and have been in this business 25 years, and I can pick two roles that have been the parts of my career; one is Otto, in Noel Coward’s Design For Living, the other is this. Purely because the material is so extraordinary. You just click with these parts.”
Grieve is no stranger to the musical. He originally played the younger drag queen, Tick (the role taken by Guy Pearce in the film), in the West End in 2011. His youthful looks allowing him to make the transition from the youngest character in the show to the oldest almost overnight.
“Having played Tick, it was nice to be able to revisit Priscilla, but from a completely different angle,” he says. “That makes playing Bernadette doubly special.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the production, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert is the story of two drag queens and a transsexual woman, journeying across the Australian outback, from Sydney to Alice Springs, in a bus they’ve named Priscilla.
Heart-warming and uplifting, the adventure follows the three friends as they go in search of love and end up with more than they could have ever dreamed of finding.
A high-energy camp-fest co-starring Jason Donovan, the musical returns to the Playhouse next week, boasting a soundtrack of disco hits, including I Love The Nightlife, I Will Survive, Go West, Shake Your Groove Thing and Hot Stuff, as well as ballads like What’s Love Got To Do With It? And MacArthur Park. All of which keep Grieve, best known as Sam Kratz in Neighbours, Dr Lachlan Frazer in Home And Away and, more recently, as Jonny Foster, in Emmerdale, on his toes.
“Bernadette is not a part for the faint-hearted. Being in high heels and a corset is quite physically demanding.
“The level of exhaustion that Bernadette has is quiet easy to tap into,” he laughs.
“After Tick, the heels weren’t a total surprise, what did surprise me was the corset. I am very glad that about two weeks before rehearsals finished I thought, ‘I’d better start wearing this in rehearsal, just to work out whether I can breathe and move’. The thing is, as soon as you run around for three seconds you are out of breath, then if you have to sing a slow, quiet song, like True Colours, having just been jumping around to I Love The Nightlife... well, let’s just say it was worth the practise of wearing it and learning how to breathe differently.”
Priscilla premiered on stage in Sydney in 2006, before transferring to London’s West End in 2009. A year later, Broadway in New York, got its own production.
In the years since, it has been rewritten and tweaked. Grieve believes the current production, which brought him to the Capital a year ago when it first played the Playhouse, is the best yet.
“I’d seen the film when it opened 20 years ago and was really thrilled to notice the stage production is very faithful to the movie,” he says.
“When I first saw it, I was a lot younger and perhaps not as fully aware of what the film was achieving in terms of breaking down barriers between the gay community and the straight community, but also demystifying and humanising these people.
“As I have got older, I’ve become much more aware of that. But also, we are in a very different time now. People have very different attitudes. It’s interesting, I look out into the audience and see people of such different ages and demographics all enjoying it.
“There are rows of 80-year-old ladies, teenagers, and obviously very straight men in with their wives and partners, and everyone gets something out this production.
“That is the sign of a truly great show.”
• Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, The Musical, Playhouse, Greenside Place, Monday-Saturday, various times, £15-£45, 0844-871-3014