Strictly Come Dancing and Holby City star Joe McFadden puts on the heels for Priscilla, Queen of The Desert at Mayflower Theatre
You certainly can’t accuse Joe McFadden of being typecast.
In his last stage role he played a sceptic in the chiller The House on Cold Hill.
But since September he has been playing Tick, the drag queen Mitzi Mitosis, in a UK tour of camp classic Priscilla, Queen of The Desert.
The actor, best known for winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, taking the lead as PC Joe Mason in the final two series of Heartbeat, and as surgeon Raf di Lucca in Holby City, spoke with The Guide while still appearing in the haunted house show.
‘It couldn't be a more different production,’ he says of the two shows. ‘This is all ghosts and a spooky house and quite serious. I'm hoping that Priscilla is going to be the antidote to all of that.
‘If I get through all of this seriousness, I get to sing and dance and jump about and enjoy myself afterwards!’
Tick is the emotional heart of the story, which began life as a hit 1994 Australian film, following a pair of drag queens and a transgender woman as they journey across The Outback.
Joe is joined by Nick Hayes as Adam/Felicia and Miles Western as Bernadette for the stage version, which is packed with massive pop hits, from I Will Survive to Venus and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
Describing the moment he first put on one of Mitzi’s extravagant outfits for the tour’s publicity pictures, Joe says: ‘I’m not going to lie – it was kind of nerve-racking. I've never done drag before, but the make-up artist was brilliant and everyone was really reassuring and it was just really fun.
‘When you have a costume that’s so different from the clothes you would ever wear, it completely takes you the furthest away from what you could be, and there’s something quite liberating and quite freeing in that. It was fun.’
He’s not such a big fan of the high heels though: ‘My legs were killing me the next day, they were really sore. It gave me a new-found respect for the pain that women go through!’
The tour’s producer is performer Jason Donovan, who played Mitzi in its West End debut back in 2009, and then again on its inaugural UK tour in 2013.
Has Joe been asking him for any advice on the role?
‘A little bit,’ he admits. ‘The thing he said mostly, was that the singing and the dancing is the easy part of the show.
‘It’s when you run off, and you have to jump into the next costume and you don’t have very much time to do it. That’s the real skill to this show, because there are so many costume changes. They're pretty elaborate affairs.’
While the logistics of the costume changes will be a challenge, Joe’s looking forward to getting into the character.
‘There is a real dramatic arc there, and I think it's a really interesting part to play. He does go on a real journey. He starts off in Sydney with his friends having a good time, but then sort of realising that he wants more out of life and going across The Outback and discovering himself.
‘Even today, travelling across The Outback in drag is a massively brave thing. And even doing drag from day-to-day – walking down the street like that – is a brave thing to do.
‘These guys, they're kind of warriors in a way and I have a massive respect for people out there who have the guts to do it.’
The role of family, in its various guises is key to the story too.
‘Tick discovering that family means a lot more to him than he ever thought it would do, and the threat his friends feel from that because they don't have that in their life, it drives a real wedge between them.
‘There's a war going on in the story, and as an actor that's a real joy to play because there are extra layers.
‘Plus there’s the fantastic songs that you're going to be tapping your feet to, and getting to do those is a real joy too.’
Anyone who saw Strictly knows that Joe can hold his own on the dance floor, but he’s not a bad singer either, having been in Rent in the West End Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang in Edinburgh and She Loves Me and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, both at Chichester Festival Theatre, among others.
‘I do enjoy singing, but I'm pretty much an actor that sings a bit and then dances even less, but the great thing about a part like this is that there's a real heart to it, so it’s not so much about the singing, even though I'm sure that will be a really fun side of things too.’
Joe’s character Raf left Holby City in December 2017 in dramatic fashion – shot dead by a gunman on the rampage through the hospital. At the same time, the actor was dancing his way to lifting the Strictly glitterball with professional partner Katya Jones.
‘It came about like the perfect storm, really. Strictly came about as it was around the time for my contract [for Holby] to be renewed, and it just felt like the right time to go.
‘And they said: “We'd love to kill you”. They only kill characters that they think the viewers are likely to care about, so in a way, it's a sort of compliment!
‘And of course, I thought it was the best way to go because I’ve left a long-running drama before, I was in [Scottish soap] Take The High Road and when I left that I asked to be killed.
‘It's too tempting as an actor, if things are kind of quiet for a couple years to just go back, and I don’t think it’s very good for you as an actor to go backwards. You should still try and challenge yourself and do different things.
‘It was definitely the right thing to do and it made such an impact. People still tell me that they're traumatised by Raf’s death, and it was two years ago.’
But as Raf’s time in Holby came to an end, so Joe was on a roll in Strictly.
Even now, though, he seems a little bemused by their victory.
‘It was completely surreal. I never really thought that we had a chance, Katya was very good at making me move forward over time and not relaxing and thinking: “Oh, this is going really well”.
‘Like when we did our pasodoble and we were getting 10s, she's like: “Okay, no celebrating”, and keep on for the next dance.
‘At the time, I thought she's kind of being ruthless, but that’s the way you’ve got to do it. You don’t get to rest on your laurels because every week there's a new challenge. And every week you can get sent home.
‘At the time I thought that it’s the best dancer who wins that show and that’s not necessarily the case. It can be the person who’s made the most improvement, and I couldn’t see my own improvement because I was still in the middle of it.
‘So it was as big a surprise to me as everyone to win, but it was absolutely brilliant.’
And did winning have any impact on his career?
‘Well, it’s made me more recognisable, whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure….’Priscilla, Queen of The Desert is at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, from January 13-18. Tickets are £19.50-46.50. Go to mayflower.org.uk.