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SA theatre icon returns to Adelaide for Priscilla the Musical


Ahead of Sunday’s season opening of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Festival Theatreactor Robert Grubb reflects on “the golden age” of South Australian theatre and how he feels about taking on a role made famous by his mate, Bill Hunter.

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Grubb, who plays Bob the mechanic in the musical stage adaptation of the iconic 1994 film, is best known for his on-screen roles in Gallipoli, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as well as his stage appearances in We Will Rock You and Strictly Ballroom.  

But it was his seven-year sojourn in Adelaide during his early acting career that Grubb describes as “the most wonderful time” of his life, and which catapulted him onto the Australian theatre scene.

After graduating from the National Institue of Dramatic Arts in 1978, Grubb was lured to Adelaide by the promise of job security and a budding festival culture in the city. He was offered a position at State Theatre Company to replace his former classmate, Mel Gibson, but ended up dabbling in commissioned film work at the South Australian Film Corporation on top of his regular stage appearances.

“It was all set up for me – Mel even said to me that I could stay where he was staying,” Grubb tells InDaily.

“This was during the golden age of arts in Adelaide, when State Theatre at that stage was the only proper theatre company where they signed you up for six months, whereas other theatres in Australia signed you up for just a play.”

“Colin George was the artistic director of the Theatre Company at the time and we got on extraordinarily well together.”

Grubb has fond memories of collaborating with big names in Australian theatre, including Geoffrey Rush, who at the time was head of Magpie Theatre Company – the youth branch of the State Theatre Company.

Adelaide really was the beginning of where I am today

He also recalls the premier at the time, John Bannon, venturing down from Parliament House on a regular basis to join the actors for their morning warm-up sessions.

“Colin George, he knew what he was doing, he knew that if he involved the politicians the money would continue to flow our way.”

“We’d jump around and then we’d run around in circles and then yoga for about 10 minutes.

“It was a great way to get to know the politicians, and I think they enjoyed getting away from Parliament House to join in with the theatre crowd.”

Grubb will return to Adelaide for the first time in six years when Michael Cassel Group and Nullarbor Productions’ Priscilla Queen of the Desert makes its way to the Festival Theatre for Sunday’s Adelaide season launch.

Based on the Oscar-winning Australian film, Priscilla Queen of the Desert follows the story of three characters who travel across the outback in a battered bus to perform a drag show in Alice Springs.

Grubb describes the musical adaptation as having a “real rat-baggery” feel that stays true to film director Stephan Elliott’s original storyline.

“The story in the musical that’s probably highlighted just a fraction more than in the film is the father-son relationship – the character Tick, he’s really nervous about meeting his young son.

“The moment when the little boy walks out on stage, I just go to tears. It’s such a moving piece of the story that just surprises you and really adds a different element to the musical version.”

Grubb will take on the role of the “sweet, open-minded and very ocker” mechanic Bob, who was played by the late Bill Hunter in the original film.

“To be honest I know that I’m there for a lot of gags, a lot of jokes, but he (Bob) has a genuine sweetness to him and I do think I’ve been able to bring that to the story.

“He seems to grab everybody’s heart and everyone seems to like him.”

I pay certain homage to Bill, but I have made Bob my own

Grubb also took on Hunter’s character Barry Fife in the musical adaptation of Strictly Ballroom. He describes the iconic actor as a “great mate” who was always eager for a friendly chat.

“Bill has just done so many wonderful things and you don’t want to mess up the legacy that he’s created with those characters, because they’re just classic characters for some people. People will still love Bill’s performances 100 years from now.

“I pay certain homage to Bill, but I have made Bob my own, I do certain things very different.

“I just try to keep that openness, that lovely honesty and sweetness that Bob has and try to play with that a little more than in the film.”

Grubb says he looks forward to revisiting his old stomping ground when he returns to Adelaide ahead of this weekend’s Priscilla opening night.

“When I was last in Adelaide, about six or seven years ago, on one of the days when I wasn’t working I went for a walk into the Festival Centre and one of the workers recognised me straight away.

“She took me down inside and she showed me these three pictures on the wall and I was in each of them, so I’m still part of it.

“This time I come I’m definitely going to check out if I’m still on the wall. I think it will be pretty special if I still am because Adelaide really was the beginning of where I am today.”

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is showing at The Festival Theatre from Sunday August 19 until September 15. 

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