Closer to Heaven review – Pet Shop Boys musical is still hellish

In four decades of droll synth pop, Pet Shop Boys have been met with brickbats only twice: first for their 1988 seaside fantasy film It Couldn’t Happen Here, then in 2001 for their stage musical Closer to Heaven, which critics agreed was closer to hell. The movie has now been partially re-evaluated. The only hope for Closer to Heaven – at least until playwright Jonathan Harvey decides to flesh out his book’s feeble central relationship between wide-eyed Irish bar-keep Straight Dave and wide-boy dealer Mile End Lee – is to be the subject of occasional revivals that distract from the show’s flaws without correcting them.

Jaime Tait, Frances Ruffelle and Cian Hughes in Closer To Heaven. Photograph: Mark Senior

For the latest production, director Simon Hardwick has wisely opted for a club format, with half the audience seated at tables and chairs on either side of the catwalk-style stage. Slashes of cold neon scar the back wall. Raised CCTV screens on either side of the room allow the odd peek at backstage naughtiness.

The main attraction here is Billie Trix, the dynamic, drug-frazzled ringmaster at the gay club where the action takes place; think Emcee from Cabaret without the moral complexity. Harvey gives Billie all the best lines (referring to her “expensive” eyebrows, she gasps: “You think I was born looking this surprised?”), which Frances Ruffelle attacks with the kind of relish that Billie reserves for cocaine. Her subtly slurring delivery hints at decades of damage; her fury when she is sacked reveals that the stakes are higher than she lets on.

For chutzpah, she is matched by Ricky Gervais-lookalike David Muscat as a pop impresario who dangles a contract under Dave’s nose on the condition that the lad dangles something of his in return. Any emotional heft comes not from the adequate songs but from the gutsy Courtney Bowman as Shell, who mistakenly takes Straight Dave’s name at face value. Glenn Adamson makes a disappointingly flat Dave (where’s the vulnerability?) while Connor Carson is hamstrung by Lee’s sheer lack of scenes. The pair first get their mitts on each other in the gents, but I’ve seen more sexual chemistry between a toilet and a plunger, more heat in a hand-dryer.

The Guardian

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