With the recent UK tour of the new production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Miles Western could be seen in one of the lead roles of Bernadette, with the show now currently on hold due to the pandemic. Prior to his role in Priscilla, Miles starred as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and he has also played Frank Cavalier in Pageant the Musical, in which he’d previously performed as Miss West Coast which saw him win an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Role in a Musical. We recently caught up with Miles, who chatted about his role of Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, being in the all-male cast of The Pirates of Penzance and winning an Olivier Award for Pageant the Musical.
Can you tell us what Bernadette is like to play in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and what do you enjoy most about the character?
I was very proud to play Bernadette as the original film itself is now over twenty-five years old and she was one of the first transexual characters to play a lead role in a movie and subsequent stage show, that wasn’t there for comic value or to be put down and to be mocked.
Frank-N-Furter may have been the first transvestite but Bernadette and also Hedwig firmly stated their claim later for trans visibility on the stage. It was a joy to play her and I hope I did the role justice.
I guess the main thing about playing Bernadette was that, as an actor, I had to convince the audience that they are watching a beautiful mature woman up there rather than me, a stringy six-foot man in a dress… becoming a woman, softening the voice, feminising the moves, changing sex before their eyes was always a thrill to do.
You were touring the UK before theatres closed, what was the tour like to be part of?
Touring life always has its highs and lows, especially when it’s a weekly tour. Six days a week with the day off a travelling day can take its toll on your mental and physical health. Everyone has moments when they wobble but, with this show, the audience always responded so positively that even when you’d be having a bad day… when that curtain fell, you were so exhilarated as that audience had enjoyed themselves so much.
We had great houses and standing ovations night after night and what performer wouldn’t want that as part of their job! We were seven, eight months into the tour before we halted but the show was still evolving and getting better in my opinion.
How is it being part of the new production and learning the music and choreography?
The thing with Priscilla is that it had a format that people had come to expect, especially with the costumes, the bus, the set! This was the first production to throw all of that away and start afresh. I remember our creatives in the rehearsal period stating that they wanted to get back to the grittiness of the original film rather than sugar coat everything. Yet on the other hand people do want a certain amount of spectacle as well, so it was just finding the right balance.
It took a while but I think we did find that balance and the show was all the better because of it.
As for the music and choreo… well, the songs were familiar to us all as we, or at least our parents, had these very songs in our music collection, so that was a comfort! The stage versions of those songs were great fun to learn, sometimes tricky… very tricky… but we got there led by our phenomenal MD Sean Green and the super tight and funky band we had! The sitzprobe was a cracking day as I recall.
Choreography was by Tom Jackson Greaves, who I swear has 360 vision and sees the whole stage and everyone on it at any one time. He knows how to wonderfully piece it all together, make everyone dance their best and create the most sensational routines! He even made me look good and that’s a talent right there!
What was the audience response like to the show and your character and what are you looking forward to most for continuing the tour?
The thing about the Priscilla story is that it is so well written! The dialogue is well thought out and some of the lines the characters have are razor sharp.
Bernadette had some corkers for sure and the audience reaction to what she said or did always went down brilliantly. I loved speaking the lines as an actor as you knew her words would land every night and get a wonderful response.
You played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night in Exeter, how was this?
I hadn’t been in a Shakespeare production for years and years, so was really looking forward to playing in Twelfth Night, and Sir Andrew is such a buffoon of a character that you’re essentially clowning whilst on stage.
It’s true that Shakespeare scares the living daylights out of performers and there is no need… the language may look and feel like a cliff face at first, but the rhythm and pattern of it soon gets under your skin. One day you walk into rehearsals and it all falls into place. It’s quite a moment when you ‘get it’.
I loved it and can’t wait to do more Shakespeare!
What was Pageant the Musical like to be part of and can you tell us about your character Frankie Cavalier?
Such good memories of this show so when I was asked by the writer and director Bill Russell to return to it as Frankie Cavalier the pageant host… I said yes in a heartbeat! It was such fun to play him… a Z-list celebrity TV host, cracking cheesy jokes… all groaners! I mean what’s not to love?
This version of the show was supposed to tour the UK but ended up being pulled through lack of money and poor planning… a familiar story! It just goes to show that putting on a production isn’t the challenge, it’s keeping the production running that is.
You’d previously played Miss West Coast in the show at Vaudeville Theatre and in Chicago, how different were the two roles to do and how was it winning an Olivier Award for your portrayal?
So, originally I was cast in the show as one of the contestants, and for anyone who doesn’t know Pageant… the contestants are played by men! Even though this wasn’t a ‘drag’ show, as the director wanted us to keep body hair etc and to obviously be men in these ridiculous pageant costumes, swimsuits, evening wear, talent outfits… the point being the ‘hoops’ we expect the female half of the population to jump through to aspire to some sort of expected ‘beauty’ is just absurd!
That was the message but it also was an extremely funny show at the same time with some wonderful monologues and set pieces.
I really think this show would go down a storm again. Especially now that anyone under the age of thirty these days is completely obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race… the time is ripe again! Assuming theatres will reopen one day… thanks 2020!!!
As for winning the Olivier… what an honour! It was a bit overwhelming to be honest and it took me a while to process it all but now that I’m older and wiser I sometimes stare at it in the cabinet and think… I did good that day! Funny story… I had nothing to take it home in the day it was awarded to me until someone offered me a Superdrug carrier bag! So that’s how this illustrious award made its journey to my flat, in a plastic bag on the 87 bus! The glamour of showbiz eh?
How was it being in the all-male cast of The Pirates of Penzance tour?
For this I was cast as The Major General. Now, his first entrance is about twenty minutes into the show and his first entrance is also ‘that’ song. Perhaps the most famous ‘patter’ song ever written!
I can honestly say pacing the dressing room waiting to go on to sing a notoriously wordy song is not for the faint-hearted! The song is unforgiving, if you go wrong it’s very difficult to get back into it so the pressure was always on! It all went well for the entire tour except for one performance and I don’t want to be reminded of that thank you very much!
Regan De Wynter Williams every year do an outstanding G&S production and it was wonderful to be involved in one.
You were in the cast of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens in 2015 for the one-night charity show for The Make a Difference Trust at Criterion Theatre, can you say about this?
The great thing about this night was that, as it was a charity concert, you could actually cast this show as intended.
There are about forty different roles in this show so under normal circumstances it would be too expensive to put on with a cast of forty+ and stage crew to pay. Usually this show when staged has the actors playing multiple roles to keep costs down but not for this one-off performance. There were technical disasters and gremlins galore during the day before the show and we were all thinking will this thing actually go ahead but, as always, when we got to curtain up it went ahead without a glitch. The whole evening ran smoothly. It was a fantastic charity performance and a lot of money was raised as I recall.
How did you get into an acting career and where did it start?
It was only while at university that I decided to give it a go… I think I was originally planning to get into stage management but I left uni thinking well, I’m going to try the performance side of the business first and if that doesn’t work out then I can always switch rails. It’s now many years later and I’m still doing it.
My first job was at the Edinburgh Festival in a production of Guys and Dolls, I was one of the Crap Shooters rolling the dice. What a great introduction to a career… I still remember this show as if it were yesterday. Snake Eyes!!
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I don’t… I have quite a broad taste so I couldn’t be specific regarding a show. I’ll love a musical on a Monday, a Beckett on a Wednesday and then love a farce by Friday. I just know that when I like it… I like it!
My gauge is this, whenever I’m watching a show… if I’m starting to look around at audience members thinking when did they last do their roots, what colour is that denim supposed to be or could he eat anymore Maltesers?… then the show probably hasn’t succeeded in hooking me.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
Well, I’ve had a guitar for a few years that I’ve picked up, attempted a few lessons then put down, time after time, after time.
During lockdown, along with everyone else, I needed to be a bit creative and fill the quarantine time. So, I picked it up to have another go and guess what? I haven’t put it down this time so I’m proud to say that I’m finally learning a musical instrument!! It’s never too late!
Can you say about your drama coaching?
All performers need to earn their money when there isn’t a job around or one on the horizon. I’ve done my fair share of them too. These days however, I’m much more particular with what I do and I choose to run careers that are parallel with my own.
I’ve been a tutor and teacher for a number of years. Coaching adults and kids as young as five or six. I really do enjoy it and, like my first professional job, I can recall the first time I taught at my local stage school to a roomful of kids. There were, on my part, some nerves and trepidation… would they like me, would I like them, would they listen and learn, could I control such a group and would they enjoy themselves?
After that first day of teaching I couldn’t wait to go back and do it again. I loved the connection with them. Seeing them slowly understand what I wanted them to do and letting themselves dive right in after a while. Watching them begin to trust me and trusting themselves to ‘give it a go’ as well. So satisfying when the results are worth the hard graft!
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