Nice guy Jason is still breaking a few hearts

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Katy Wheeler speaks to Jason Donovan about drag

In my younger years Jason Donovan was my dreamboat. I played the Neighbours board game, I read my Kylie and Jason annual religiously and I wore out my LP of Too Many Broken Hearts.

I’m glad to report, therefore, that interviewing Jason didn’t shatter any of my illusions of him being an all-round nice guy.

Despite hitting the headlines – sometimes for all the wrong reasons thanks to an early and well-documented battle with drugs – he’s forged a career based on his talent and his ability to charm an audience.

Wearsiders will find out just how likeable the 44-year-old can be when he steps into the vertiginous platforms of one of theatre’s most camp and colourful creations.

The Australian pop star and actor plays Tick, aka Mitzi Mitosis, one of a trio of drag queens who’ll be bringing the outback to the Empire next month on the inaugural tour or Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Speaking of his role, in his distinctive Aussie lilt, Jason said: “It’s a wonderful story based very closely on the film about three drag queens heading into the desert.

“My character is harbouring a secret about a wife and child.

“It’s a modern musical. It’s not Starlight Express, it’s quite edgy and quirky.”

Despite turning down a role in the original 1994 Priscilla film, Jason appeared in 450 performances of the musical at London’s Palace Theatre between 2009 and 2010.

He says he’s loving getting back into the glittery cat suits and over-the-top wigs.

“It’s not often that you get to appear in a great story as a character with such personality that’s an Australian musical – it’s perfect for me in that sense.

“It’s a long time since I played the role in the West End, so I feel like I’ve not overdone it,” he said.

Next month’s run at the Sunderland Empire will be the sassy show’s North East premiere.

I’ve seen the show during its run in the West End and Jason assured me that none of the magic had been lost.

“It hasn’t had to be changed too much for the tour,” he said.

“When you’re in the West End it can be complete technically, so you can have an explosion every night.

“On tour we have to move every week so it’s difficult to do that.

“But people say it’s even better because you can focus on the story more.”

Jason will be joined on stage by fellow towering drag queens Richard Grieve, who played Jonny Foster in Emmerdale and Sam Kratz in Neighbours, as Bernadette, and Graham Weaver as Felicia, a role he played in the West End.

The story follows the three drama queens as they hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship and end up finding more than they could have ever dreamed of.

As well as outrageous costumes, the show features a hit parade of dancefloor favourites including It’s Raining Men, Say a Little Prayer, Go West, Hot Stuff and Always on My Mind.‟

The musical originally opened in Australia in 2006 where it ran for two years, before opening in the West End for a run of a further two years before a successful season on Broadway.

Along the way, it has won numerous awards including the prestigious Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Costume Design.

Jason himself is of course no stranger to the stage.

After the success of playing Scott in Neighbours and a subsequent pop career in which he sold more than 13 illion albums to date, he discovered a passion for treading the boards.

He famously played Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the 1990s followed by roles in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Show, Sweeney Todd and The War of the Worlds.

“There is nothing like that raw energy of live theatre, it really is addictive, like a drug,” he said.

“Eight shows a week is exhausting, but theatre is wonderful.

“Particularly with technology going the way it is, theatre becomes more poignant because the live arena become more important.

“It’s great being on tour. When you go anywhere outside the M25 people seem to really appreciate you, not that West End audiences don’t, but it becomes more of a party.

“I’ve been to Sunderland before and they’re a great audience.”

Jason has always kept a hand in the small screen too with appearances on Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and as a panel member on Superstar, the ITV show which was won by Millfield actor Ben Forster.

However, for many women, including me, he will always be Scott Robinson. And he doesn’t mind one bit. “Neighbours is part of my history and I’m very proud of it, so it’s not a negative thing when people ask me about Scott,” he said.

“Nowadays I get asked a lot about Strictly and being a judge in Jesus Christ Superstar.

“It’s great doing different things, it means I don’t get bored.

“I’m a big fan of England and its history and the public have been extremely good to me.”

* Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical is at Sunderland Empire from April 8-13. Tickets priced £10 - £35 are available from the Box Office on High Street, Tel. 0844 871 3022 and www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.