Photo: Darren Bell
About half way through Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys’ 2001 show, Closer to Heaven, exhilaratingly revived this week at the Union Theatre, I realised that the British musical has finally come full circle. I remember my parents coming home late one evening in 1958 having been impressed by an innovative musical - also about a talented perfomer in search of his break in London and the seedy agent who exploits him: Expresso Bongo (soon to be filmed starring the young Cliff Richard) the first hit ‘kitchen sink’ show to deal with what was then called Tin Pan Alley. And here we are again - or were when it was first staged in 2001 - with another, yes, Soho book musical but half a century later and adding gay sex and drugs to the rock 'n' roll mix.
Harvey’s skill at creating gay characters and their stories with wit, warmth and wisdom has made him one of our foremost stage dramatists (Beautiful Thing and Canary) and television writers (Gimme Gimme Gimme and Coronation Street). And though this isn’t one of his better scripts, it contains enough humour, variety of characterisation and mood to provide a more than adequate framework for a lively, inventive score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. It’s also a joy to see a contemporary play-with-music rather than the heart-on-sleeve, sung-through rock fest of torch ballads that so often passes for a musical.
The friendly but scruffy beneath-the-arches atmosphere of The Union perfectly creates the atmosphere of a louche, seedy gay club. Add a few neon lights, a psychedelic lighting design (by Tim Deiling) glittery scanties and, hey presto, we are immediately tucking our bags under our seats for safety. Once again, the venue has excelled itself, gathering a team, this time consisting of fifteen mainly young, talented performers, whose combined energy, if properly harnessed, could generate all Southwark’s electricity requirements for as long as the show runs. One is never disappointed at this theatre and this lovingly put-together production is no exception. Philip Joel’s street-savvy, hip-hoppity choreogaphy, especially, is outstanding.
Dominating the cabaret, the bisexual ageing rocker Billie Tricks (a nicely judged world-weary performance from Kate Mellor) opens the show by introducing us to the gyrating cast in the catchy opening number My Night. Meanwhile, Vic (Craig Berry) the manager of the joint, awaits the arrival of his estranged daughter Shell (Amy Matthews). When she appears she wastes no time in informing him - and us - that her Dad is in denial about his own sexuality: cue for song. Hot on the heels of this revelation, Straight Dave (who we can tell at a glance is really as camp as a row of marquees) turns up looking for work as an dancer.
Before the next song is out, not only have the two youngsters fallen in love, but Dave’s lithe frame has attracted the interest of Bob (Ken Christainsen) a nasty, shady record producer who sees his potential as part of a boy band. Of course it’s not only Dave’s dance moves that Bob wants to audition - but by then we’re in Bob’s sauna, of course, so …
Also in denial, Dave is having none of it, though is soon forced to confront his attaction for an attractive drug-dealer, played by the gifted Connor Brabyn, called - wait for it - Mile End Lee. At this point I started thinking of a very different urban underworld show based on Damon Runyan characters, not to mention the neglected British ‘Soho’ show The Crooked Mile. Still, Brabyn’s performance as Lee singles him out as an actor to watch with his commanding stillness and quiet intensity.
Ultimately a morality tale of the dangers of a certain choice of lifestyle, the Ketomine Party and downbeat ending came as no surprse. And if I didn’t come away humming any particular tune, it all moves along very nicely and Billie’s number Friendly Fire particularly dramatically effective. Director Gene David Kirk and The Union are to be congratualted on yet another imaginatively staged, whole-heartedly performed evening - and for introducing us to another clutch of budding young talent.
Photo: Darren Bell