Closer to Heaven continues at the Union Theatre, London until 23 May.
Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★
Few struggling musicals which closed on their original run have been talked about in such reverent tones as Closer to Heaven. A collaboration between Pet Shop Boys and Beautiful Thing playwright Jonathan Harvey, the Union Theatre’s revival is the first in the UK since the original 2001 production at the Arts Theatre ran to lukewarm reviews. And while there are moments to enjoy in this revival, there are also plenty of clues as to both why its original reception was tepid, and why it has taken 14 years to return.
Jared Thompson makes his professional debut here as Straight Dave, a guy who wants to become a podium dancer in a gay nightclub whose dancers are managed by the eccentric Billie Tricks (Katie Meller). Fending off attentions from the bar’s manager Vic (Craig Berry) and sleazy, sex-obsessed pop music impresario Bob (Ken Christiansen), Dave starts up a relationship with Vic’s daughter Shell (Amy Matthews) – until his head is turned by Connor Brabyn’s babyfaced drug dealer, Mile End Lee.
How that story ends up playing out in Act II is where Closer to Heaven starts to get interesting. But first, there’s an Act I full of clumsy exposition to wade through. At times it feels like the book consists of nothing but characters shooting at each other, starting each scene having already decided they’re going to be angry in the vain hope that might imbue their cardboard characters with some depth. The brightest hope from the cast comes from Ben Kavanagh’s bitchy personal assistant Flynn, while Matthews and Thompson as the young lovers transcend the unbelievable dialogue as if to promise that if we bear with them, there may be an interesting story developing.
Helping to shore up the otherwise frustrating Act I are Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s songs. And while a couple struggle lyrically – most notably the grating ‘In Denial’ – they do generally manage to straddle the divide between gay clubland and musical theatre surprisingly well. They’re immeasurably helped in this regard by Philip Joel’s dynamic, energetic choreography, which is by far the best element of the whole show. A strong dance ensemble is essential for this show, and the young cast really deliver on that score.
With all the pieces set in position by the conclusion of the weak Act I, life post-interval improves immeasurably. As Meller’s Billie Tricks becomes less of a narrator and more of a confidante integral to the story, so she is able to display a fine line in comedic performance. Harvey’s writing, once able to juggle romantic drama and comedy without the shackles of exposition, finally shows the warmth which made his Beautiful Thing such a perennial hit, and which he refined in the 14 years since Closer to Heaven’s debut. It also manages to survive scenes in which the entire cast overindulges on ketamine – and anybody who’s frequented the sort of nightclub characterised in this musical will appreciate how dull it is to watch other people so off their faces on drugs that they imagine they’re being interesting.
Act II is also home to the best of the show’s musical numbers. The torch song ‘Friendly Fire’ is not only a superb song in the context of Closer to Heaven, it is one of the finest in Tennant and Lowe’s extensive back catalogue. The plaintive, funereal ‘For All of Us’ is similarly impressive, bringing the main part of the show’s story to a sombre conclusion.
The railway arch setting of the Union provides a far more fitting backdrop for Closer to Heaven than any proscenium arch theatre ever could, and it’s clear throughout that this musical has been afforded as much love as the production team has to give. It hasn’t been quite enough to make up for the source material’s flaws, but the level of entertainment it provides is sufficient that it is unlikely that we will have to wait another 14 years for a further revival.