Jason Donovan talks Priscilla, pop and plans for 2016

Jason Donovan at the Edinburgh Playhouse where he stars in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.  Picture: JANE BARLOW
Jason Donovan at the Edinburgh Playhouse where he stars in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Picture: JANE BARLOW
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FROM Tick, the Aussie drag queen, to Frank Butler the gun-toting cowboy, to Lionel Logue, speech therapist to King George VI... and back again. Jason Donovan is a familiar face in the Capital.

Earlier this year he starred in The King’s Speech at the King’s Theatre, before that he rolled into the city for Annie Get Your Gun, and it’s not that long since he last played Tick in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Playhouse.

Jason Donovan as Tick - Priscilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical. Picture: Coltas

Jason Donovan as Tick - Priscilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical. Picture: Coltas

That’s the role that has brought him back to the Greenside Place venue for the festive season, where he has been receiving rave reviews for the musical based on the 1994 movie of the same name.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision to come here for three weeks over Christmas and New Year,” he says, as we settle in his dressing room for a chat. “I don’t normally work over Christmas, I’ve never done a panto... although sometimes, on a rowdy night, this can feel like panto. Actually, after six shows in four days it does feels like panto.”

He laughs, “Let’s rephrase and start again. I’ve got some friends in Edinburgh and it’s a great vibrant, cool town to spend time in.

“There are not too many cities that are on a parallel with Edinburgh and Priscilla seems to be very welcome here.”

It does indeed, the West End and Broadway hit is currently enjoying its third, and longest, run in the city.

Priscilla, a camp explosion of glitz and sparkle with mirror-balls to die for and more sequins than you have seen in your life, is set to a sing-a-long sound track of 70s and 80s disco anthems.

It tells the story of three drag queens; when Tick agrees to take his act on the road, he invites fellow act Adam (Felicia) and transsexual Bernadette along for the ride.

In their colourful bus, named Priscilla, the three artistes travel across the Australian desert performing for enthusiastic crowds and homophobic locals.

But when Felicia and Bernadette learn the truth about why Tick took the job, it threatens their act and their friendship.

Light and fluffy in parts, Priscilla carries a definite moral, which for Donovan was the attraction.

“It’s a very strong story and the drama comes out of the adversity that these characters find themselves in and from the reaction of the narrow-minded Aussies they meet along the way, who tend to think life is just one course and not a whole bunch of courses.”

He continues, “However, the piece is punctuated very well. The end of Act One stops all the fun and brings back the gravity of the situation.

“Then again in Act Two, when Felicia is on the ground being beaten up, there’s an almost brutal reality to it.

“Traditionally I am not a musicals singer. I have done some before, but I feel more comfortable as an actor who sings. That is why I like this show and why it works for me.”

Having played the character on and off since Priscilla opened on the West End, Donovan knows the show “inside out” and reveals he believes the current production, in which he stars alongside Simon Green (Bernadette), Adam Bailey (Felica) and Still Game’s Gavin Mitchell (Boaby the Barman), is the best.

“I guess the character of Tick has evolved for me. I can bring strength to it, I can make him vulnerable, make him passionate. There’s a who palette of stuff I can put into him now,” he reflects.

A lot depends on who he is playing opposite.

“I felt that particularly with Simon,” he says. “Simon has a particular elegance and I work very well with him.

“I’ve worked well with all my Bernadettes but particularly well with Simon.

“There has to be a strong chemistry between Tick and Bernadette because Felicia is on her own course anyway.

“Simon brings a maturity to the part. He creates an old film star-type of character and I don’t think we’ve had that before... and he has fun on stage.

“Not a lot stresses him out and I really like that because with eight shows a week you have good shows and bad shows and it is easy to get tense. “Simon is relaxed as a human being and that comes down from the top ,so I enjoy it more.

“Consequently, this production is the most relaxed I’ve ever been on stage with it. Maybe in a way its me saying goodbye to the role...”

So might this be the last chance to see the original Tick do his thing?

“Maybe... until they ask me to do it in New Zealand or somewhere,” he laughs.

“If it felt right, and the time was right, I would always come back because I enjoy it so much.

“I don’t feel I’ve anything to prove at this point. I’ve probably done more than a thousand performances and I think there is a mutual respect now, particularly as a performer into my late-4os, that I probably have never had before in a piece like this.

“So why not?”

If it does turn out to be his last turn as Tick, Donovan couldn’t have asked for a better production to go out on, it has played to universally positive reviews.

“All the productions have had their own distinct qualities,” muses the star.

“One can’t argue with the money thrown at the original West End production, with its revolving stage and all the singing and dancing that went with it.

“The tour version last year had some wonderful cast members., but I think in terms of touring, this ticks both cast and particularly production values.”

That includes some spectacular lighting effects and a colourful array of outlandish costumes, which ensure that even when offstage Donovan seldom has a minute to himself.

“The costume changes are a whole plot line in themselves,” he says, “and, quite frankly, after just doing six shows in a row, I’d be happy never to see any of them ever again.

“But they’re great to hide behind. Some people talk about the walk. In the King’s Speech I found some sort of rhythm - he was quirky with lots of hand stuff - with Tick, I find him very relaxed and then when I put on the drag, I just flip into car crash mode.”

Answering the next question before it is even asked, he smiles, “Are they comfortable?

“Not when they have been washed on a weekend and are skin tight. I think if designer Tim Chappel could have sprayed those pants on to me he probably would have.”

Priscilla pulls out of town early Sunday morning, after which Donovan returns to pop star mode for a tour that will find him singing his greatest hits at venues around the UK in February.

It seems he might just be a workaholic.

“I think I am,” he laughs. “ I’ve been very lucky in my life but I do like to work. I’d like to do less but we like to live well and that costs money.

“I’m in a very privileged position, I can pick and choose what I do, but I don’t because having a family of five is like a business, and the key to running a good business is cash flow.

“That’s the bottom line, and I’m at the point where my business is sucking all the resources out so I have to pump something back into it.”

So what does 2016 hold for the actor who in 1988 caused an astonishing 20 million viewers to tune to watch Scott Robinson and Charlene Mitchell’s wedding.

“So the tour goes through, and I still have my radio show playing 80s hits on Heart Radio [every Sunday from 7pm]. I love that,” he says.

“Then there will be a few festivals in the summer and I’ve always talked about moving away from theatre back to TV.

“Unfortunately these carrots - like Priscilla - keep getting dipped in front of me. To sit there and say ‘No, I won’t take it’ in the hope that ITV are going to knock on my door and offer me the lead in the next Downton Abbey is a risk I would like to take, but can’t at the moment.”

He laughs again, “You see the good news is, I’m Jason Donovan! The bad news is, I’m Jason Donovan.”

The irony of being a soap star and pop star is that such universal recognition doesn’t always open doors for you, not that Donovan wants to escape his past. Quite the contrary.

“You can’t erase history. Anyone who pretends something didn’t happen is denying all those millions of fans the things that brought you all these gifts, so let’s be very clear, I am extremely happy and very proud to have been part of Neighbours.

“And it only takes one thing to change everything. I guess we are talking a complete reinvention. Yes, I would love that to happen, but those things also come at a price. You have to maybe uproot and go and live in America for six months of the year.

“That’s a gamble you can take at the age of 22 or 23, but when you are a 47-year-old with three children, you have to stop and think.”

Whatever happens, it seems we haven’t seen or heard the last of Jason Donovan. Not just yet anyway. And that has to be a good thing, avoiding too many broken hearts in the world.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Playhouse, Greenside Place, until Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£53.50, 0844-871 3014