Music and Lyrics: Pet Shop Boys
Book: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Gene David Kirk
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
There wasn’t a whole lot of love around for Closer To Heaven when it premiered, even though those involved – the show weds a book by Jonathan Harvey to original music and lyrics by Pet Shop Boys – might seem, on paper at least, to suggest a collaborative dream team. However, when the musical debuted at the Arts Theatre back in 2001 (with Frances Barber, David Burt and Paul Keating among its cast members) it was taken to task by some critics for songs of variable quality, problematic staging and a weak storyline which rehashed clichés of contemporary gay life.
That kind of ambivalent response won’t put off the brave souls at the Union Theatre, though, and thus Closer To Heaven is now being revived at the tiny but ever-enterprising venue in a production directed by Gene David Kirk. Unfortunately, the piece still looks like a mostly misbegotten affair whose flaws are too major for even the slickest production to totally surmount them.
Set against the backdrop of Soho’s druggy, pansexual clubland, the show centres on a young dancer, Dave, an Irish boy who’s offered a job at a London nightclub, owned by the taciturn Vic and presided over by performer Billie Trix, a fading rocker and den mother of sorts to the club’s denizens. Dave starts a relationship with Shell, Vic’s estranged daughter, but soon finds himself tempted by the attractions of Mile End Lee, a dealer with whom he ends up falling in love.
A mixture of music business satire, club culture celebration/critique and coming-of-age (and coming out) story Closer to Heaven’s mode is grubby camp, and Clark’s production goes full-tilt in embracing that aesthetic. More money than usual at the Union has been thrown at the set and costumes, and David Shields’ design does well in the club scenes, with the cast members already on the dance floor when the audience enters the auditorium.
However, despite some spry choreography by Philip Joel and solid arrangements by MD/DJ Patrick Stockbridge, the show feels rather amateurish for the most part. Full of drama, insight and character, Pet Shop Boys songs seem a perfect vehicle for a clubland musical. But while flashes of patented PSB wit surface – a show featuring a number entitled “It’s Just My Little Tribute To Caligula, Darling!” can’t be a total write-off – the songs aren’t always well-integrated into the plot, and the characters are too weakly drawn for the numbers to really resonate, with attempts at tender, emotional moments falling especially flat. (Plus, it soon becomes apparent just how much PSB songs gain from Neil Tennant’s distinctive dry delivery.)
The main culprit for the show’s shortcomings, though, is Harvey’s crude and crummy writing. Alarm bells are set ringing in the opening number: the song, “My Night”, is strong and hugely appealing but the bits of book that Harvey crowbars around it (with the characters outlining who they are and what they’re doing in the show) are clumsy in the extreme. More surprising still is the lack of affection that the show demonstrates for club culture, as well as the obviousness of its satirical targets (boy band members don’t need to be able to sing, we’re informed), while the endless speculations about Dave’s sexuality become tedious in the extreme.
Not all of the performers, which include Jared Thompson as Dave, Connor Brabyn as Lee and Amy Matthews as Shell, seem entirely at their ease yet, with the exception of Ken Christiansen, who appears to be enjoying himself in the rôle of a predatory producer who reveals his modus operandi (and much more besides) in a sauna-set strip sequence. And, as Billie, Katie Meller’s resemblance to Liza Minnelli keeps one amused. But, despite some fun moments and a few choice songs that you’ll certainly emerge singing, Kirk’s revival ends up fairly far from heaven.
Runs until 23rd May | Photo Darren Bell