Closer To Heaven is in many ways exactly what you’d expect from a musical with music from the Pet Shop Boys. Sure, it’s got a pumping electronic pop score filled with nagging earworms, but it also offers something a little different, a little offbeat. Since its premiere (and flop) in 2001, there hasn’t been a musical with a score like it – for good reason.
This revival, directed by Gene David Kirk, embraces the aesthetic of the show. The archways of the Union Theatre provide a suitably grimy setting for the seedy gay club in which events take place, decorated cheaply with a bar in the corner and scantily-clad dancers (of all persuasions) littered around on podiums. Music Director Patrick Stockbridge also has a lot of fun as the club’s “DJ”. The show is at its best during the ensemble dance numbers: Philip Joel’s high-octane choreography is bold, fun and in-your-face (quite literally). Coupled with the pop score, it lends the show the feel of a music video.
That said, most music videos pack more authentic drama into three minutes than Closer To Heaven manages in two acts. Kirk capably directs a talented (if sometimes overzealous) cast, but on every other level the show falls short.
The early 00s were full of jukebox musicals, so the Pet Shop Boys should be applauded for writing (mostly) new music – even if the best songs are actually lesser-known tracks from their output. The best of these is the title track, though its infectious nature is more to do with the number of reprises throughout the show. As fun as they are, the songs are simply too flimsy on which to hang a dramatic narrative. These are songs to be danced to in a club, not sung on a stage. The subtle melancholy of their lyrics simply doesn’t work in this context. Moreover, with a lack of microphones, many of the lyrics are lost behind waves of pulsing synths.
The clunky book is the major culprit, however. Dialogue is clichéd, character relationships lack believability and chemistry, and there are simply no likeable personalities. Writer Jonathan Harvey has tried too hard to shoehorn in as many issues as possible: here we have a broken family of gay father and estranged daughter (a plot thread that, like many, is soon dropped); drug use in the gay club scene; and the corruption and shallow nature of the music industry (in an awkward sauna scene). Above all, this is a coming-out/coming of age story – young innocent “Straight” Dave (Jared Thompson) moves from Ireland to London for fame, becomes a dancer in a gay club, falls for the manager’s daughter, then falls for the local (male) drug dealer. If his bisexuality is meant to be a twist, it’s glaringly obvious from the off. The narrative is more a tick-box list of problem characters that simply doesn’t flow from scene to scene and lacks cohesion, though its drug-fuelled climax is well played.
Mostly, Closer To Heaven feels incredibly outdated. Its list of issues of course remain relevant today, but it’s as if the Pet Shop Boys are stuck in the past, looking through an 80s lens of hedonistic and garish homosexuality. There is some camp enjoyment to be found in this production as a relic of the past (much like Katie Meller's club performer Billie Tricks), but if it felt irrelevant fourteen years ago there seems little reason to bring it back now.
Watch: Closer To Heaven runs at the Union Theatre until 23rd May.
Photos: Darren Bell