Jason Donovan on lockdown, Priscilla and why theatre matters now more than ever

The past 15 months have been a torrid time for many in the entertainment business.

Jason Donovan has a busy few months lines up. (Picture credit: Steve Schofield).
Jason Donovan has a busy few months lines up. (Picture credit: Steve Schofield).

But with theatres and venues slowly opening again, albeit with restrictions for the time being, the hope is that we’re starting to slowly get the show back on the road.

And it seems that Jason Donovan is making up for lost time. Next month he is due to reprise his role of Pharaoh in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at The London Palladium, followed by his own nationwide music tour (which includes a string of dates in Yorkshire) in the autumn.

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Before that he’s got Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which comes to Leeds Grand Theatre and Hull New Theatre next month. Only he won’t be donning make-up and glitter and ripping it up on stage. Instead he’s producing the hit musical – his first time as a producer.

Jason Donovan performs during a concert, at the O2 arena in London in 2012. (PA).

“I’ve been touring theatre shows, prior to the pandemic, for eight million years,” he says, jokingly, “and doing eight shows a week away from home for months on end. I enjoy it, but I don’t want that to be my entire life story. So being a producer enables you to be part of the project without necessarily having to be on the road the whole time.”

And Priscilla, which follows the journey of two drag queens and a transsexual woman across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus that they have named Priscilla, is a story he’s familiar with having starred in the West End production just over a decade ago.

The new stage show is the latest adaptation of the 1994 Australian comedy-drama film, written and directed by Stephan Elliott, which became a global hit.

“For me it’s on par with doing Joseph because it was such a big production and it was so well received. I don’t like using the word ‘cool’, but I will, because it’s a cool show. It isn’t Disney, it was a bit confronting, it’s quirky and has some great songs, it’s camp and colourful and it’s very Australian,” he says.

“I did two tours so I think the stripes are there for me to be able to say I can understand the audience and what is required for the show to work.”

Having Jason Donovan’s name attached to the show certainly gives it kudos, even if he isn’t appearing himself. “It gets a bit of attention so let’s hope it puts bums on seats.”

Donovan has been a household name for more than 30 years and knows his own value and, while this has stood him in good stead during the pandemic, he’s well aware that many people haven’t been so fortunate.

“I’ve been very lucky and I guess I have a currency that probably transcends a normal entertainer and because I’m Jason Donovan people come to me to try and bring people into the theatre. That currency has held me well, what is more difficult is the people who don’t have that – like the freelance directors, the actors, and the stage and set designers.

“It’s one thing to protect our institutions and these wonderful buildings that will survive as a result of government money. But it’s no good having a building if you can’t fill it with talent,” he says. “So we, with Priscilla, have been either brave or completely stupid by going back out there and giving people some entertainment and employing these people who haven’t worked for 12 months.”

However, he believes people are ready to go back to the theatre. “I think we’re tribal and we need to have shared experiences and sitting at home watching Nextflix is not like sitting in a theatre watching Hamilton.

"This country’s culture is based in theatre and goes back years so I think theatre will be therapeutic in a way. It requires confidence and people feeling safe, but I think musicals are interesting because I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough drama in the last 12 months. I’d rather go and watch a show that’s pure escapism and celebrates life.”

Donovan’s father was an actor and his own acting career started when he was nine years old. “My parents split up when I was younger and I was brought up by my dad and watching him was exciting and because I had connections I could probably get a foot in the door. But at that point it was then up to me how I used those moments to leverage myself to where I am now.”

His big break came when he played Scott Robinson in Neighbours, the Aussie soap which made him and Kylie Minogue famous in the UK and triggered a frenzy of tabloid speculation about the pair.

Donovan left Neighbours in 1989 to embark on a singing career as part of the hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable. He proved an instant hit with his debut album, Ten Good Reasons, the biggest-seller of that year.

“It was an incredibly exciting time and I was learning on the job, because there’s no manual for it. But I didn’t get into the business to become famous, I got into it because I wanted to act. The fame was just a by-product of what I did.”

He went on to fashion a successful stage career as the music side of things began to wane, though he admits he endured some dark times. “It hasn’t always been sunny skies, particularly the 90s, that for me was a period where I was trying to work out what I was,” he says.

Those days are long behind him, and talking to Donovan today you get the impression of someone who is comfortable in his own skin, who no longer feels he has to prove anything to others, or indeed himself.

“How do you process what happens when your dreams come true and you go beyond those, and how do you measure success? I guess the thing for me is I’ve had a taste of all that, the fame, the shows and the mistakes, and I feel content in myself. I’m not chasing a dream that I didn’t fulfil,” he says. “I say to my kids, as long as you’re passionate about what you do and as long as you put in the work, something will come out of it.”

As well as his stage work, Donovan is looking forward to his own music tour. “I’m excited about that because I’m doing my songs and there’s going to be a bit of nostalgia which is probably what people need at the moment.”

And he’s fine with that, he says, because it works both ways. “I watch BBC 4 on a Friday night occasionally and they showed Top of the Pops from 1989 and I’m watching myself thinking ‘that’s insane.’ It’s a weird feeling. But then you become the heritage and people like to look after their heritage in this country. So I’m in a good place.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will run at Leeds Grand Theatre from July 6 to 10, and also at Hull New Theatre from July 12 to 17.

Following the extension of lockdown measures until July 19, the Leeds shows will now be socially distanced. Those who already have tickets should receive an email from Leeds Grand about their options and can contact [email protected] if this has not yet happened.

For details of Jason’s tour dates go to https://www.jasondonovan.com/