A few years back, being something of a fan of The Pet Shop Boys, I’m sure I could have sung you the entire CD of their, as yet one and only, musical Closer To Heaven, but for whatever reason I never actually got to see it when it did a six month stint at The Arts Theatre back in 2001.
Having just sat through press night of its revival at The Union I was completely unprepared for something which I could never have imagined – it contains a truly awful book by Jonathan Harvey which even this high-energy, if flawed, production fails to overcome.
It is the year 2000, and our lead character, ironically named ‘Straight Dave’ (played with youthful energy, if not an altogether convincing Northern Irish accent by Jared Thompson) comes to London and wants to be ‘Something Special’. Didn’t we all? Do I care about him? No, not especially.
He decides he wants to become a dancer so gets a job as a barman in the club owned by Vic (a nicely vulnerable and complex performance from Craig Berry) where the resident has-been-done-it-all-seen-it-all hostess come faded sixties hippy, Billie Tricks (Katie Meller, looking how Sarah Brightman might if she hadn’t got the divorce settlement) takes him under her wing as part of her act.
Vic, presumably in a moment of madness twenty years previously, has a daughter, Shell (Amy Matthews channeling Letitia Dean) but is actually gay, and has ‘substance abuse issues’ (lots of drugs in this show) with whom Dave becomes attached.
Shell works for Bob (an evil Ken Christian played with pantomime gusto) a part apparently based on The Pet Shop Boys’ then manager, Tom Watkins. They must have been conflicted, as although the character as written is a nasty piece of work (though in dramatic terms is not the ‘antagonist’) he undoubtedly has the best tune in ‘Old Fashioned’.
Bob has an assistant Flynn (best performance of the evening from Ben Kavanagh who manages to bring to the part much more than I would imagine is on the page) and a drug dealer, Mile End Lee (a nicely understated fragility from Connor Brabyn giving us probably the only character of the evening whose story I actually wanted to hear) who ‘Straight Dave’ falls for, and cops off with, thus cheating on the girlfriend who he has lied to about his sexuality. Nice guy!
Bob wants to have Dave in his boy-band (Dave’s basically a passive character – no pun intended – who gets everything handed to him on a plate) but Dave is conflicted. Do I care? No.
Anyway, after lots of dancing, and more stuff happening (this show is heavy on plot but with precious little story) things work out to an unsatisfactory conclusion involving more drugs, and there’s an ending tagged on to try to give some spurious sense of resolution.
However, there are some positives. This is a dance-heavy show, and Philip Joel’s choreography is superb. Sadly it doesn’t quite paper over the cracks (and was never going to without Jonathan Harvey’s book being worked on) but is enjoyable, and the cast are young, enthusiastic, and very easy on the eye.
The sound is somewhat variable, and the music seems to be recorded for the major musical numbers, and live for the more intimate ‘links’. Sometimes the songs are miked, sometimes not, depending on whether the characters know they’re singing. I admit I found this a problem, as the music was uniformly amplified, but it’s hard to see how such an electronic score could have been played completely ‘live’.
The Union’s is the perfect match for the seedy ambience of Vic’s club, and David Shield’s set, and Tim Deiling’s lighting design use it well, even if there were gaps from Gene David Kirk’s directorial hand.
If, like me, you’re something of a completist, this is going to be an evening for you. If you’d rather have a well told heartwarming story of young love conquering adversity and haven’t already got tickets, don’t worry, the run is just about sold out anyway so you have the perfect excuse not to go.