Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Bob spreads the Priscilla word

As Home and Away favourite Alf Stewart battles to recover from a devastating heart attack, the actor who plays the much-loved TV character has turned up in Auckland fighting fit.

Ray Meagher says he's counting the days until he reprises his role as Bob the mechanic in the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which arrives in Auckland in October. Based on the film of the same name, the show follows three drag queens on a journey through the desert " set to a soundtrack of disco hits.

It was last in Auckland in 2008 and broke box office records selling 100,000 tickets for its six-week season. Meagher has spent a few days in town talking up the show and travelling in its brightly coloured "Priscilla bus", which gets toots and waves from delighted fans wherever it goes.

That doesn't surprise Meagher, who says the show had a standing ovation every night when it was performed on London's West End nearly five years ago.

"People think it's just a 'drag' show or a 'gay show', but then they see it and realise it's got so much heart as well as fabulous music and stunning costumes," he says. "It's enough to melt the heart of the crustiest old homophobe."

He acknowledges being surprised at how many Home and Away fans he's encountered during his Auckland stay. Meagher's been with the Aussie soap since it started in 1988, the only original character to remain. He says producers have allowed him time off to appear in Christmas pantomimes in the UK and, of course, for Priscilla.

It means despite nearly 30 years on screen, he's no stranger to the stage but he wasn't a fan of disco until Priscilla. Meagher says he can't get enough of the music now. His favourite numbers include Don't Leave Me This Way and MacArthur Park, but he's not so sure about his solo.

"It's just me out there on the stage and I tell you, it can get a bit lonely," he admits.

"The first time in London, the last dancer ran off the stage but I heard tinkles on the ivories and thought, 'who's that for?' Then, I realised it was my intro and it was my time to get out and sing. I figure if everybody else is great throughout the show and I hit a note in five, that'll be fine."

Ray Meagher in stage production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Photo / Supplied
Ray Meagher in stage production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Photo / Supplied

Luckily, Bob isn't meant to be a great singer, which suits Meagher fine. He says never in his wildest dreams did he expect to appear in a musical like Priscilla with 500 costumes, 200 head-dresses and all that funky music.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm a bloke from the Queensland bush who can't sing and can't dance so a musical, especially one that played in the West End, is the last place I expected to find myself.

"But I love the show and I love Bob. He's a laconic, genuine Aussie country bloke, who has spent 40 years travelling round the world looking for a place to call home and he finds it right back where he started."

Expecting to be in Auckland for at least six weeks, Meagher's looking forward to seeing a bit more of the region as previous trips have been brief.

And there's the weather. Looking out of the Priscilla bus at a windswept Auckland harbour, Meagher says he wasn't worried about the rain because the sun always returns in a few minutes or so.

No doubt he'll be able to discuss the weather with Kiwi actor Ben Wall who has been named in the role of Alf's son, Duncan.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will be at Auckland's Civic Theatre from October 14. See priscillathemusical.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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