Closer to Heaven review Union Theatre
In the fickle world of musical theatre productions, it’s difficult to predict the fortunes of any show but even the most optimistic of souls couldn’t have foreseen the Union Theatre’s revival of Closer to Heaven selling out its entire run, weeks before it even started. The musical originally ran for less than five months in the West End in 2001 and this marks its first professional reappearance in the UK, the natural home of a show with such a British pedigree – a book by Jonathan Harvey and music and lyrics by the Pet Shop Boys.
Set in and around the sexually-experimental and drug-swizzling crowd of a London gay club in 2000, Harvey’s book is no great shakes. Recent Irish émigré Straight Dave starts work at the club, falls instantly in love with the gay boss’s long-estranged daughter, then meets a fit young drug dealer and falls instantly in love with him too. Sub-plots aplenty distract the attention, though keep your eye on that bag of ketamine, but Gene David Kirk’s astute production focuses in on the musical potential of the piece, pumping the theatre full of hedonistic attitude and club beats.
This it does through sharp and sexy choreography from Philip Joel, plus Barbara Williams’ eye-catching costume design, that struts and thrusts proudly right into the faces of the audience – the seven-strong ensemble do strong work here amid David Shields’ set with its effectively vivid lighting from Tim Deiling. Patrick Stockbridge’s musical direction from a DJ box on high spins through Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s sonically cohesive score from its torch songs and boyband hits to slices of high camp and stone cold Pet Shop Boys classics (not that these last two are mutually exclusive of course).
And they’re performed with a knowing sense of fun by the likes of Katie Meller’s vampy Billie Tricks who is the club hostess who doles out her hard-earned advice as often she snorts a little something to keep her going, Jared Thompson’s fresh-faced and clean-voiced Straight Dave whose self-assurance on the dancefloor is matched only by his indecision about who he wants on his bedroom floor, and Connor Brabyn’s swaggering Mile End Lee, brimming with lean sexuality and confidence with everyone he meets, but touchingly awkward when an emotional connection with Dave rears its head.
It’s a shame that the putative gay love story arrives so late in the day as by then, the unconvincing family strife between father and daughter and the sauna-based shenanigans of a sleazy record producer have worn patience rather thin due to the persistently threadbare writing. And though the melodic title track is cleverly reprised by three different couples, subtly shifting its lyrical meaning each time, by the time it reappears for at least the sixth time at the show’s end, it’s less an earworm and more a ringing in the ears. To borrow from the Pet Shop Boys, “never been closer to heaven, never been further away”.
Closer to Heaven runs at the Union Theatre from Wednesday 22nd April to Saturday 23rd May 2015