BWW Review: ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS is the Tonic; Touching and Wonderful at Hayes Theatre
NB: this article responds to the preview performance of Only Heaven Knows on Friday May 26th and the interview conducted. For a comprehensive review, our editor Jade has got you covered from Opening Night.
Forget the biggest-name stars, gargantuan glamour and staggering production budgets of "the musical" as you know it; you need not go to Broadway or West End for something to rocket with song, dance and story right into your heart. Look no further than Hayes Theatre in Kings Cross for the humble, hilarious and truly special revival of Only Heaven Knows. As touching as it is tragic, gritty as it is gorgeous, Only Heaven Knows traces the steps of a group of friends living in 1940s and 1950s Kings Cross doing their best to thrive in the changes.
One for all humans with hearts, the story pivots on the love between new arrival from drab Melbourne, Tim, and gold-hearted ex-military man Cliff. For all the musicals attract and pander to a great deal of gay men, here is a love story depicted with warming truth by director Sean Rennie. Tender, gutsy and cheeky, it brought this reviewer to tears simply by virtue of being free of the usual stereotypical tawdry nature of representing gay men in relationships. As Tim, Ben Hall has the ripe fresh-face and rousing vocal to carry the primary narrative wonderfully. Beside him, Tim Draxl's heated and heartfelt portrayal of Cliff is peerless, and his voice stands out for its vulnerability and genuine emotion.
Navigating life with these two is Cliff's best friend Alan, in whose shoes Matthew Backer delivers the powerful narrative of the show: a man seeking escape from the victimhood homosexuality means in the time. Guinea, a singer and single woman, experiences similar societal scorn for her status, but Blazey Best transforms her into a show-stopping chanteuse of eclectic hilarity. The ensemble is given all its colour and flair by Hayden Tee, returned from Broadway to belt out as both the femme and ferocious Lana, and the femme and ferocious phantom of Lea Sonia who narrates the piece. Most of the performers play other roles to flesh out the population surrounding this group, the intimacy of which makes one of the strongest, most balanced ensembles this reviewer has enjoyed.
Only Heaven Knows premiered in 1995, with Hayes' own David Campbell in the lead, but Daniel Edmonds and Michael Tyack's musical supervision and direction was nonetheless cut out for them. Each performer brought raw-nerve talent, familial connections and spectacular voices to the work, grasping each note with sincerity under Rennie's direction assisted by Tom Sharah. Ellen Simpson as Movement Director did a winning job of making the choreography stand alone as commentary and even satire, walking the fine line of camp with sure steps. Brian Thomson's set was every bit the dynamism of entrance and exit required, a series of platforms that transitioned between a multitude of locations with logic. Emma Vine shines again in her Costume Design, creating period precision and partnering with Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest for a spectacle I shan't spoil, but MUST be seen.
Heaven Knows is the antidote to shows that continue to pitch gay life for only its politics (and political correctedness); a microcosm for the importance of life with love, the oft-lifesaving value of lasting friendships, the generosity of strangers that gives way to the discovery of the deepest of oneself. Also of beauty about the show is what home truth and touching memory it offers to those who lived in the time, who are undoubtedly as much flabbergasted as they are liberated by contemporary life. Similarly, it serves to remind those of us who saw the transformation from Will & Grace to Modern Family, Rupert Everett to Luke Evans, and Greg Louganis to Tom Daley, that we have come a long way, and it is worth the work to go where we need to next as a community, as a society, as humanity.
Tickets available here.
We were lucky enough to interview director Shaun Rennie, and performers Hayden Tee & Blazey Best (albeit on what has turned out to be very inadequate recording equipment so forgive us). Have a listen and if you like the audio content, let us know!
Promotional images by Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis
Production images by Robert Catto.