Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre

The Turbine Theatre's revival of Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys' cult classic runs until June 30

By: Jun. 10, 2024
Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre
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Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre In 2001 Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys’ cult classic musical opened at London Fringe. Spawning further productions in Australia, London and even the spin-off Musik: The Billie Trix Story in 2019, the Turbine Theatre revival feels fitting as a space to platform LGBTQIA+ stories, as proven with My Son's A Queer... and But I'm A Cheerleader. Unfortunately, Closer To Heaven feels stuck in the period it opened.

A gay club at the turn of the Millennium sets the scene for a variety of stories. The owner Vic Christian wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter Shell. Irish barman ‘Straight Dave’ wants to be a real singer and is coming to terms with his sexuality. Billie Trix is a fading star trying to cling onto what fame she can.

Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Despite director Simon Hardwick’s valiant efforts, nothing can save the flaws in Jonathan Harvey's book, which fall flat in emotion. Often chaotic with no sense of structure, there's little time to develop its characters outside of their cardboard cutout caricatures, or rather the theme they're given. The club owner’s a drug addict who relapses. Straight Dave is tempted into selling his soul to a sleazy record producer. There’s a rushed love triangle between Shell, Straight Dave and drug dealer Mile End Lee that ends poorly. Switching between romanticising the character's drug fuelled hedonism and condemning it, the tonal whiplash during one character's tragic fate in act two becomes difficult to take seriously. 

The Pet Shop Boys synth-heavy songs don't help either. Despite Christopher Tendai's consistently flexible choreography featuring pelvic thrusts and writhing on the floor giving them the energy they need, they quickly become repetitive and superfluous. With clumsy segues and laughably basic lyrics (one egregious example rhyming ‘denial’ with ‘final’, ‘survival’ and ‘rival'), you get the sense they believe they're saying more than they actually do.

Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Senior

The production’s saving graces lie in the cast and David Shields’ design. Fully transforming the Turbine Theatre into Vic’s Club with cabaret seats and a catwalk with characters dressed in BDSM gear, Jack Weir’s flashy neon lighting adds to the chaos and liberating hedonism. Screens are cleverly used as backdrops for Vic’s Club’s avant garde numbers (with low quality CGI appropriate for its setting) and CCTV cameras to capture saucy moments.

Tony winner Frances Ruffelle (Les Miserables) proves why she's Closer To Heaven’s main attraction as emcee Billie Trix. Capable of salvaging the opening number’s sound issues and a show stop at the performance I attended with an ad-libbed quip, she inserts plenty of much needed comedy while lamenting her status as a washed up has-been. Courtney Bowman (Six) brings gusto and whatever raw emotion she can find as Shell, while Kurt Kansley tries to add dimension to Vic Christian’s substance addiction in spite of the rushed execution.

Review: CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Turbine Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Glenn Adamson has a powerful voice but feels underutilised as Straight Dave and his romance with Connor Carson’s drug dealer ‘Mile End Lee’ feels lacking due to their limited stage time. David Muscat inserts plenty of camp as record producer Bob Saunders in spite of the loathsome character he’s given who’s aged the poorest with time.

A musical about gay romance and drug addiction that opened in 2001 that still feels like it was made in 2001, more needs to be done to update Closer To Heaven than its aesthetic. The talented cast and creatives can only do so much to elevate the musical’s inherent camp, but Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys' script and songs feel underbaked with characters who aren’t able to be fleshed out. With this in mind, it feels closer to hell.

Closer To Heaven runs at the Turbine Theatre until June 30.




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