Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Gavin Mitchell - Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the Turner Prize may not be the most obvious of bedfellows. Anyone wishing to find the connection between the latest run of the campest of musicals and this year's cutting edge contemporary art competition, however, need only look to Gavin Mitchell.

Tonight, the actor best known to TV audiences as Boaby the Barman in hit sit-com Still Game will be onstage in Priscilla at Edinburgh Playhouse. For these dates only, Mitchell will be playing opposite Jason Donovan in the relatively low-key role of Bob, the mechanic picked up by the bus-load of drag queens in Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott's long-running stage musical version of Elliot's hit 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Last Monday night at Tramway in Glasgow, however, it was Mitchell's dulcet tones that could be heard introducing former Sonic Youth vocalist, bass player and artistic polymath Kim Gordon. Gordon may have been announcing the Turner award itself, but, care of Mitchell, she received what was possibly the most showbiz-styled introduction she's ever had.

Mitchell's disembodied appearance was the latest off-kilter excursion from a performer who in the last couple of weeks alone has refereed a wrestling match, DJ'd in a Glasgow club and sang as an occasional member of bad-ass party show-band, Colonel Mustard and The Dijon Five.

There was also Mitchell's appearance last year on Music and Words, a collaboration between singer and former Arab Strap guitarist Malcolm Middleton and artist David Shrigley. This is a relationship that stems back to Mitchell providing voice-overs for some of Shrigley's animations, which led to him being cast as a world-weary egg in Shrigley's equally absurdist opera, Pass The Spoon.

“It's not everyone who'd cast you as a manic-depressive egg,” Mitchell says. “David knows my range. That's what I call a friend.”

In his own words, Mitchell is “spinning plates,” in terms of the projects he gets involved with. During a career that began on TV playing opposite David Tennant and Ken Stott in Donna Franceschild's 1994 mental health unit set drama series, Takin' Over The Asylum, Mitchell has also moved through comedy sketch shows, Pulp Video, and the less well-known Velvet Soup and Revolver, en route to Still Game. Compared to all that, for Priscilla he is playing things pretty straight.

“It's all quite bonkers,” Mitchell says about his casting in the show. “I'd always loved the glamour and glitz of Priscilla the movie, and always wanted to see the show, but I've always been working or else it's been sold out whenever it's been up before, so it's great that I'm finally getting to see it as well as be in it. It's a great story, though I think the meaning of it has changed as sexual mores have changed.”

Mitchell praises Donovan, who reprises the role of Mitzi, who he first played in the show's 2009 London production.

“I'm looking forward to hanging out with Jason in Edinburgh,” says Mitchell. “Maybe I'll take him down to the Port O'Leith for a game of dominoes.

Of his character in Priscilla, Mitchell says that “Bob's really interesting. People might presume I'd be playing one of the drag queens, but Bob's quite ambiguous, and he's a bit of a mystery. He's got this wife who emasculates him, and he talks about having travelled he world, so he's this quite mundane good guy who's a bit broken, but there's this burgeoning romance that throws a wee curve ball into proceedings, because Bob's the archetypal straight guy.”

In keeping with such understatement, Mitchell won't get to let rip with some of the larger than life show-stoppers that have made Priscilla such a smash hit.

“Part of me is quite jealous,” he admits, “but to do that I'd have had to be one of the drag queens, but this is really nice for me as well, because at this time of year I've usually got glitter coming out of parts of me that I never knew existed.”

Mitchell is referring to what up until this year has been an annual stint in pantomime at the King's Theatre in Glasgow. Such seasonal outings were nipped in the bud last year after Mitchell was forced to withdraw from playing Captain Hook in the King's fiftieth anniversary production of Peter Pan following a cycling accident.

The injury happened earlier in the year, just two weeks before Mitchell was scheduled to appear in the record-breaking twenty-one night run of Still Game onstage at the SSE Hydro.

“I came crashing down onto the concrete,” he says, “and classic west coast of Scotland male, I bounced back up, said I was fine and tried to ride off.”

Even with what turned out to be broken ribs, Mitchell struggled on.

“There was no way I was going to pull out of Still Game,” he says, “and I was strapped up for most of it. That was fine until the big dance number at the end, and I came off and had to neck a load of pain-killers.”

Pulling out of the King's panto “wasn't a decision taken lightly,” Mitchell says. “It was my fiftieth as well as the King's', and I'd always wanted to play Captain Hook, but I never gave myself a chance to heal or to rest. I'm just old and stiff.”

Despite this, one shouldn't expect Mitchell to be off the panto scene for too long.

“I love it too much,” he says. “I love the audience, and the King's is very dear to me. It feels like home.”

Beyond his injuries, Mitchell describes the Still Game stage show as “like a dream. Doing it was quite mind-bending, especially in a space the size of the Hydro. I had to open the show, which was quite a laxative, but afterwards was strange as well.

“Normally you'd go to the pub or chat to people outside the theatre, but because the place was so big, there was this real disconnect. You'd have a drink in the dressing room and then you'd walk home alone. Once it was over, a lot of us had these strange come-downs, where just going for a pint of milk seemed strange.”

While there is talk of Still Game returning to the small screen, Mitchell has plenty to keep him busy. He describes Colonel Mustard and The Dijon Five as “a phenomenal live band. It's a big party, but it's quite political too. They're all about sharing positivity.

As for the wrestling, “My weird association with that comes from Greg Hemphill,” he says, referring to his Still Game colleague. “He's been a wrestling fan since he was a child, and he asked me to introduce one of the bouts at what was the last public event at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.”

Presuming he hasn't acquired a fresh set of injuries while refereeing, Mitchell reckons Priscilla audiences will have “a hoot. These days it tends to be a bit like The Rocky Horror Show, with lots of people coming along in drag to party. But the show's changed as well, because the landscape's changed. Now it's a big celebration, of colour, creed, gender and sexuality.

Beyond Priscilla, Mitchell will keep on spinning plates.

“I've never had a game plan,”he says. “Everything I do tends to be about the mood I'm in at the time. When I think I've had enough of all this I'll probably apply for a job in Gregg's or become a lollipop man.”

Gavin Mitchell appears in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Edinburgh Playhouse, December 15-January 2 2016. The show also plays at the King's Theatre, Glasgow from March 29-April 2, but without Mitchell in the cast, and with Duncan James replacing Jason Donovan.
www.playhousetheatre.com

The Herald, December 15th 2015

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