Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 04/06/2001.
Closer To Heaven's London run lasted five months, in the end. Thanks to the post-9/11 slump in tourism, a lot of West End shows closed before their time in the autumn of 2001, and this was one of them.
A soundtrack album was released, but judging from the prices on Amazon (see below) it's no longer in print. Here, have a video of Frances Barber singing Friendly Fire instead.
"Firebomb the theatre. Piss on the ashes. Shoot the survivors through the head."
- Spank The Monkey's review of Mamma Mia, April 1999
You've probably noticed by now that musicals and I don't get along.
No, sorry, that's not true. Stage musicals and I don't get along. I don't have a problem with the general idea of people spontaneously bursting into song during moments of high emotion, because when it happens in the movies it's usually a wonder to behold, be it Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or South Park: Bigger Longer And Uncut. It's just that when it happens in a theatre, I can never quite fall for it in the same way.
And I do try, believe me. At least once a year I'll follow Spank's Pals into London's Fashionable West End to catch the latest musical hit, in the vain hope that I'll find one that appeals to me at some level or other. There has been the occasional success with this policy, I grant you. I caught Kander and Ebb's Chicago in the early part of its run when Ute Lemper was in it, and its dark edge definitely gave it an advantage over its rivals. (It's obviously a characteristic of Kander and Ebb's work: I've always loved the movie of Cabaret, and I still have fond memories of an incredibly small-scale production of their Flora The Red Menace at the Orange Tree, Richmond a few years ago.) But generally, from an early visit to Les Miserables to this year's Sondheim misfire Merrily We Roll Along, I've usually been disappointed. And don't get me started on that talentless gobshite Lloyd Webber...
The Pet Shop Boys have been talking about writing a musical of their own for over a decade now. As a fan, I approve. There's always been a theatrical element to their music, particularly in their live shows. If you can, try to track down the video Performance, a record of their 1991 arena tour. Directed by David Alden and designed by David Fielding (both from the English National Opera), it's a crazed synthesis of dance, mime, theatrical excess and great tunes. More recently, they actually took over a West End theatre a couple of years ago for a short residency of more conventional concert shows. It was only a matter of time before they took that final step towards combining theatre and song.
Their collaborator on their new musical, Closer To Heaven, is playwright Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the book while leaving Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe in charge of the lyrics and music. In an ideal world, Harvey would be best known for his sensitive gay coming-out drama Beautiful Thing, which played at the Royal Court to great critical acclaim and was subsequently filmed. Unfortunately, he's probably really best known for Gimme Gimme Gimme, the atrocious ugly bird/gay bloke/flatshare sitcom starring Kathy Burke. He can portray gay relationships with genuine skill and tenderness, but outside of that area he tends to fall back on broad caricature: could he fall prey to the same problem when writing the book for this show?
I'd have to say yes, to some degree. But I should stress that I saw Closer To Heaven during the two weeks or so of previews held prior to its official opening night. Harvey was visible in the audience taking notes (actually, the night I went with a couple of Spank's Pals, he was even visible in the Spaghetti House next door to the theatre, grabbing some pre-show pasta like we were). Shows can change a bit during the preview process: my ranty comments about Mamma Mia above were my suggestions on how that particular musical could have been improved based on the evidence of its previews. Closer To Heaven is far from perfect, but there's enough potential there for a couple of last-minute rewrites to turn it around for the better. But for now, here's what it looked like on May 21st.
Our hostess for the evening is ageing rock chick Billie Tricks, a scene-stealing performance by Frances Barber. She's very reminiscent of late period Marianne Faithfull, knowing her time in the spotlight is long gone (she had a 70s hit single, Run Girl Run, based on the infamous Vietnam news photo of a little girl suffering from napalm burns) but hanging on regardless. Nowadays she's some sort of mother figure to the various people who pass through Vic Christian's gay club.
The opening number, My Night, is a pretty audacious piece of work: in the space of five or six minutes, it includes three rapid scene changes and introduces us to all the major characters. We rapidly meet Billie herself, her boss Vic (David Burt), his daughter Shell (Stacey Roca), local drug dealer Mile End Lee (Tom Walker) and new barman Straight Dave (Paul Keating). All this accompanied by a typical Pet Shop Boys stomping opener, and a dozen or so scantily-clad dancers. It's a tremendous cards-on-the-table opening, and it's a shame the rest of the show never quite recaptures that energy.
Straight Dave is the character the story centres around. Fresh off the boat from Ireland, he's taken this bar job but is looking to make something more of himself. He auditions to join the club dancers, and Vic decides to give him a chance. Suddenly, everybody wants a piece of Dave. Shell fancies him rotten, Lee appears to be interested to a similar degree, and ugly fat bastard pop manager Bob Saunders (Paul Broughton) wants him to join his boy band Up And Coming. With all this pressure on him, something's eventually got to give: and in a tense climax to the first act where drugs, sex and jealousy rear their ugly heads, Dave's new surrogate nuclear family goes into meltdown.
As I said earlier, this show's been in preparation for several years now. In the meantime, the Shoppies have continued to release records, and some of the songs from Closer To Heaven are already familiar to fans: In Denial, Vampires and Closer To Heaven itself all appeared on their 1999 album Nightlife. It's interesting to compare the band's own versions of these songs with the ones on display in the show. In Denial, for example, succeeds splendidly as a duet between Neil Tennant and Kylie Minogue on record: in the musical, even with a dramatic context, it falls a bit flat, as we can't quite imagine these characters dropping into lazy psychotherapy cliches like this. But Closer To Heaven works well as the main love theme of the show, thanks to a lot of reprises during the evening: and Vampires becomes the one song where David Burt really gets to cut loose as Vic, to stunning effect.
Of the rest of the songs, Shameless (actually filched from a 1993 b-side) is a fab showcase for the vile Bob Saunders (though his entrance to Call Me Old Fashioned is even nastier): It's Just My Little Tribute To Caligula Darling is a typical Tennant patter song with Gladiator porn chic trappings: and Friendly Fire, Billie Tricks' big solo number, is probably the best of the lot. When Neil Tennant sang this on a recent promotional CD, it was a wry reflection on fading stardom: here Frances Barber gives it a cracked grandeur all of her own, which is all the more touching for not really being deserved.
The other songs are much of a muchness, and the same applies to a lot of the cast. The young male leads are fairly anonymous pretty boys: Stacey Roca shows some promise in her stage debut as Shell: and it's only the cartoon characters of the bunch - Billie and Saunders - who really stand out. Billie in particular is a great creation, a singing version of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous with a similar approach to sex and drugs (the first thing we see in the show is her snorting a line of coke) and some great comedy falling over. She also gets some of the best lines, like the comparison of her love life with the Vietnam war: "after a lot of protesting, it all came to an end in the seventies."
Unfortunately, a lot of the problems are down to Harvey's book, getting back to my main concern about the show at this preview stage. The tone is all over the place: Harvey tries to get a balance between the music biz caricatures and the more sensitive coming-out subplot, but he never quite pulls it off. As everyone starts abusing substances to some degree, you wonder if he's going to pull off a non-judgemental depiction of recreational drug use, similiar to that encountered by most of the young British population on a Saturday night. But no: he's tied into a traditional showbiz rise-and-fall story, so it's just a question of waiting to see which of the characters will come to a tragic end. (Though on the way we do get what I think is the only depiction of a ketamine trip currently available in the West End, unless Les Mis has gone through a fucking major rewrite since I last saw it.)
The finale of Positive Role Model gives us the Big Finish a show like this needs, though it has to resort to big orchestral samples, strobe lighting and a hydraulic lift to actually pull it off: and it's a little too late to make up for the earlier weaknesses. But there are a lot of fine moments to savour in this show. The design by Es Devlin has some beautifully imaginative touches, like the inspired bedroom setting for Nine Out Of Ten and the UV black light show of act 2 opener Hedonism. The three man pit band of Christopher Nightingale, James McKeon and Steve Vintner push all the right buttons without the tunes ever feeling too pre-programmed (the entire score is played on keyboards and percussion). The songs, as I've said already, are fine: the dancers (choreographed by Billy Elliot's Peter Darling) are even finer, and the male dancers obviously have a lot of fans out there. And Gemma Bodinetz directed the whole thing, although she's kind of overwhelmed by the various other talents battling it out on stage.
You'll have fun at Closer To Heaven: it's more camp than a presidential summit, and the tunes carry it through whether you're a Pet Shop Boys fan or not. But with a bit more work, it could be a whole lot more. Hopefully, it'll be given the chance to develop: so many West End musicals are strangled at birth these days if they don't pull in the audiences in the first few weeks, and this deserves more than that. I certainly wouldn't suggest you go round to the Arts Theatre and firebomb the place into submission like I did with Mamma Mia. (The latter's still running at the Prince Edward Theatre some two years after my review, by the way. Would I suggest going round there with your high explosives instead? I couldn't possibly comment on that. Being a monkey, and all.)
Closer To Heaven Official Site [dead link] is, frankly, a bit dull: a single page with a synopsis and some booking info. I was hoping it'd perk up a bit once the show had officially opened, but no such luck.
Pet Shop Boys Official Site has been through an overhaul recently and is looking rather fine now. Lots of information and downloads, including brief audio samples of every single song the Shoppies have ever released.
Google Groups now maintains an archive of all the Usenet newsgroups, including alt.music.pet-shop-boys. If you want inside gossip and speculation on the band's activities, go here, although at the moment it seems to be a little bogged down by unpleasant squabbling between rival posters.
Pet Shop Boys Eventually [dead link] and PetShopBoys.tv [now redirects to official site] are two newish fansites, both slightly top heavy on the multimedia bollocks if you've got a slow connection, but still worth a look.
Dotmusic [now redirects to Yahoo! Music] is a generally good music news site, and their Closer To Heaven report [dead link] deserves a mention for a short video clip [dead link] featuring interviews and a couple of music extracts.
Beautiful Thing is a fan page for Jonathan Harvey's breakthrough play, and has links to a webring of several more. If you don't believe how much of an impact this play had, check out these assorted fans from across the world who really identified with the coming-out story at its centre.
Wotapalava [dead link] is the terrific title of the Shoppies' plan for a gay Lollapalooza. Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Sinead O'Connor, Rufus Wainwright and Stephin Merrit will be joined by assorted DJs on a tour of North America in July and August 2001. Dates are still being confirmed at the time of writing, but Spank's US readers can check here [dead link] to see if they're playing your town. No sign of a Philly date yet, Carole. [Sadly, it didn't work out.]