As actor Joe McFadden shimmies into the role of drag queen Tick for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, we talk sparkly costumes, high heels and road trips ahead of the cult show's arrival in Blackpool next week.
Were you a fan of the original movie of Priscilla? Did you know it well?
I really loved it; I think it’s something everyone has an awareness of. I actually saw the production at the Palace in London years ago. It’s such a vibrant show, I remember being blown away by it, and especially by how great the music was.
Why do you think that this story has become such a cult classic?
There’s loads of things that really work, so many fantastic songs in there, as well as it being a great story. It was way ahead of its time; I think it’s one of the first pieces of drama that was centred around a trans person and that was discussing things like gay parenting. It’s complete timeless as well as being super entertaining and joyous. It has all the best elements of a great musical.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it before, or hasn’t seen the film, what can audiences expect from the show?
It starts with my character Tick working in Sydney in a drag bar, enjoying his life, just as he gets a call from his past. We find out he has a wife, who asks him to come and do a show at Alice Springs and spend some time with his son who he hasn’t had much contact with. He decides to rope in a couple of his pals and travel across Australia in a big bus. His friends think they are just going to do the show, and have no idea why they are really going, or that he even has a child! The relationship between the three friends really drives the story as they find out he has this whole other life they had no idea about. They get themselves into some quite dangerous situations as they travel across the Outback and meet some interesting characters, and they all have to make big decisions about being themselves or conforming. There’s loads in there for audiences to get their teeth into!
How will the road trip element of the show work on stage?
We’re doing some really big venues, and then some which are tiny, so it’s going to be really inventive. That’s what’s so exciting, because it’s a brand-new production, it’s a whole new design. I think it is going to be really interesting and different from perhaps the show that people might have seen before.
You mentioned that for a lot of people, the film would’ve been the first time that they might have encountered drag queen culture and trans identities, and our conversation about how that has moved on slightly in recent years Do you think the show will seem different because of that?
You know that’s the thing with these issues, they are still around and they are still having to be dealt with. Sadly, we don’t live in a world where people aren’t fighting these battles still, so that sort of makes it still timely and still relevant. People are slightly more used to seeing things like drag, but a lot of the serious issues are still around sadly.
How is having Jason Donovan as your producer?
It’s brilliant, he’s so knowledgeable about the show. He’s played it in the West End and on tour, and just having his input is brilliant because he’s been there, he’s actually played this part and I’m hugely in debt to him for getting the part because he really championed me. To have his seal of approval really means a lot, he’s been nothing but complimentary and encouraging and it’s been fantastic.
Did you know him beforehand?
No, funnily enough we ran into each other on Loose Women once! We had Strictly Come Dancing in common so we were chatting about that and a couple of weeks later I was called in to meet for the show, so I assumed that it was all thanks to him.
Will you be getting tips from him about how he approached it?
I absolutely will be! He said that being on stage and playing the character is the fun bit, it’s when you come off stage and you have these huge, really fast costume changes to do that it can get tricky. Also, looking after your back in the huge heels! He recommended me to get used to walking in the heels, even wearing them in the photo shoot was tricky!
Do you have any experience of wearing heels?
Absolutely none, whatsoever. I’ve walked around inside to get used to them, and I was a little bit like Bambi but I’m slowly getting better. It’s difficult, I don’t know how anyone could do it all day!
Yeah, some of the shows you see with drag queens, I think ‘God, I don’t know how they can manage it…’
It’s everything, the makeup, and the hair…and the shaving! I have complete respect for them for doing it every night!
Are you looking forward to that side of it?
I really enjoy when you put on a costume and it takes you far away from who you really are, I think it’s quite freeing as an actor to be completely different and it really helps you get into character. You get a chance to be someone else, trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
I assume the costumes will be quite fabulous. Have you had many glimpses of what you might be in?
We did have some quite special outfits to wear, they’re really colourful and really sparkly. But, you know, having done Strictly a couple of years ago, all of that stuff isn’t alien to me anymore, so I’m really looking forward to getting into our costumes.
Do you think that being in Strictly has helped to lead to this part?
It has certainly helped me get my head around doing it, I’ve waited for the opportunity to get the chance to use the bit of dance training that I did. I really wanted to get to use it at some point but absolutely had to be with the right thing, and when this came along it felt like a perfect fit.
It must be a good training for a musical having to learn all those routines very quickly at such a high level?
Absolutely, we only have three weeks to put on the show so I’m imaging it will be quite similar, learning routines in a very short space of time. I’m slightly nervous, but nerves are good!
Were you involved with dancing before Strictly or was it sort of start from the ground up?
No, I absolutely started from the ground up, as you can tell form my first couple of weeks at the show! I had quite a steep learning curve, I think people could absolutely see I was working full pelt most of the time!
Obviously Priscilla has got very fun soundtrack as well, are you fan of busting out some moves to the old Disco classics anyway?
Definitely! There are such great songs in the show, and so many that you can’t help but tap your toes to, and be moved by and that’s the thing I remember most about seeing the musical. I remember I was so worried about seeing the musical because I had enjoyed the film so much, but it really works because of those fantastic songs. We’ve actually got some new ones in there this time that I’m sure people will go mad for.
Are there any numbers that you’re particularly looking forward to, any favourites in there?
I really love McArthur Park, and Always on My Mind which is the song that Tick sings to his son, that really sticks in my mind from the West End show. I also love We Belong, the three main characters do it together and it really unifies them and reinforces their friendship.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that you don’t have an Australian accent, how is that going to be?
It will be fine; I’m hoping it’s going to be as easy doing Australian as doing American which I’ve done before. I grew up watching Neighbours and Home and Away, and I recently started putting it on again in the afternoon just to get my ear in the accent. I’m slowly getting sucked back into it so I feel like I’m regressing back to my teens watching Kylie and Jason! That’s going to be my new life, watching loads of Australian shows every day!
And you are currently touring The House on Cold Hill, has it been good to get back on the stage and do a play?
It’s been fantastic actually, after doing four years on Holby City I think it’s really good finally to get back on stage, the longer you leave it, the scarier it gets. It’s just a brilliant discipline as an actor, going on there and getting through it every night, telling the story from start to finish. It’s been a brilliant experience having the reaction that we’ve got and we’ve been playing to pretty much full houses all over the country. It’s so nice to know that people are spending their hard-earned cash on coming to the theatre, it means more than it ever has, so we appreciate it all the more.
Do you think you’ve got some dedicated Strictly fans who are waiting to see you busting out any moves on stage?
Strictly fans should definitely come and see Priscilla, because I’ll get a chance to properly dance and that absolutely was my ambition when it was over, so when this show came along, I was thrilled.
And do you get stage fright?
There’s always nerves, and I think there should be, especially in the beginning, because it just shows that you care and you want the show to be as good as it possibly can be. Doing something like Strictly taught me that you can be nervous, but you can use those nerves and channel them into your performance.
How does it compare for you, doing the work on stage, to filming or doing TV?
It’s difficult to compare because, doing something like Holby City for four years you get to know the character really well which is really lovely, but was one of my reasons for wanting to change things up a bit. As an actor you shouldn’t allow yourself to get stale and play the same part for too long. I want to act and play loads of different roles, and I feel so fortunate that I get to do television, musicals, plays and things like Strictly. Things couldn’t be going much better.
And do you find touring, life on the road?
It obviously has its hard times as you are away from home, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing the country and going out and exploring each new place. It’s really interesting doing a show on tour as well because it keeps changing, depending on the personality or the location of the audience, they bring out really different energy, even the building of the theatre sometimes completely changes the play. It keeps you on your toes, which I enjoy.
And you will definitely be kept on your toes in Priscilla…
Yes, quite literally!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is at Blackpool Opera House, 21st-26th October. Book tickets here.
Interview by Holly Williams