Closer to Heaven


Sometimes however much effort goes into a show,and however glittery the talents involved, the results still resolutely fail to deliver. Such is sadly the case with ‘Closer to Heaven’, currently revived at the Turbine Theatre. This musical first saw the light of day in 2001, with a book by Jonathan Harvey, and a selection of new songs specially written for it by the Pet Shop Boys. It had a mixed reception then and subsequent revivals have not secured it a repertory place. Nor will this one.

The problem lies with the book primarily, and not with the music or the performers, who in this case give it their all. There are far too many undeveloped plot lines, none of which really convince; and the lyrics of many of the songs are either over-wordy or distractingly cringe-worthy in their rhyme schemes. To compensate there is an overdose of raunch and sentimentality, neither of which is justified or earned in the scenario.

The focus of the action is a nightclub run a by Vic, a drug-addled owner overcome by guilt at losing contact with his daughter, Shell. She seeks a reconciliation, but along the way falls for ‘Straight’ Dave, a wannabe singer at the club, who in turn is drawn to a drugs dealer, ‘Mile End Lee’. A sleazy record producer, Bob Saunders, and his sidekick try to inveigle Dave into a record contract, and hovering over all is Billie Trix, a club hostess with a back catalogue of adventures and addictions stretching back to the beginning of time. Three ‘babes’ provide backing and dancing for the club-based numbers.

None of this bizarre full-on material really suits the droll, ironic, ever-so-carefully curated aesthetic of the Pet Shop Boys, but there are still some fine songs here, mostly on the quieter more meditative side. Billie Trix’s ‘Friendly Fire’ and Dave’s elegy over Lee are particularly notable. They are well delivered by Frances Ruffelle and Glenn Adamson, and indeed all the cast do a more than creditable job on the musical side. Courtney Bowman, as Shell, has a distinctive, lovely voice and it is a pity that she is more hampered than most by the implausible plotting of the relationships.

There are plenty of pluses on the production side. David Shields has converted the Turbine Theatre into a cabaret environment in the manner of the Kit-Kat club and the thrust stage with plenty of levels gives as much scope as possible for the dancers in this relatively small space. There are some very effective lighting schemes from Jack Weir, and neat use of CCTV to assist the action. Christopher Tendai’s choreography is very strong too, with three excellent dancers to execute the in-your-face 90s clubbing vibe.

The performers do a mostly heroic job with this material. Indeed perhaps they try too hard to compensate – there is quite a lot of over-acting and over-emphasis especially in the over-long first half. All the same, there are some stand-out performances. Frances Ruffelle, trouper that she is, finds poignancy and excess in the part of Billie Trix, and Glenn Adamson tries his best to reconcile all the contradictions of ‘Straight’ Dave. I liked Connor Carson’s contributions, although he is not given much to work with in building up ‘Mile End Lee’. My favourite performance, however, was from David Muscat as the outrageously mordant, cynical and camp record producer. He has superb comic timing and was responsible for the best laughs of the evening.

I regret I could not like this show more given the strenuous efforts of all involved. But as with – say – ‘Aspects of Love’ – there are some shows that perhaps should be left in peace with the best of the songs preserved as anthology pieces. ‘Closer to Heaven’ is destined to stay earth-bound.


Turbine Theatre

Text & Music: Jonathan Harvey & The Pet Shop Boys

Director: Simon Hardwick

Cast: Glenn Adamson, Courtney Brown, Connor Carson, Lewis James, Kurt Kansley, David Muscat, Frances Ruffele

Until: 30 June 2024

2 hrs 20 minutes with interval

Photo Credit: Mark Senior