The signs were surely there as far back as the Pet Shop Boys' 1986 debut, Please. Songs such as Later Tonight and Tonight Is Forever clearly yearned to break loose from their pop shackles and soar on a stage of divas and dancers. They've finally made it to the West End (via Dusty and Liza), so with redoubtable gay playwright Jonathan Harvey on board, the scene was surely set for a dramatic walk on the dark side. A La Cage Aux Folles with added bite and zest, for a sensitive and more liberated audience.
Not a bit of it. In fact, if anything, Closer To Heaven puts notions of progressive gay art back in the ghetto of 30 years ago. If the intention was to limit the production's appeal to the W1 brigade, then in that at least it's succeeded. This butch muddle is hardly likely to engage an audience outside of Soho, let alone beyond London's less forgiving perimeters.
From three gay icons, all of whom have made quality work accessible and relevant to the mainstream, this ranks as a major disappointment. Harvey's thin plot involves Cockney gal Shell meeting up with her gay old Dad again after a long absence. "You're a classy bird," he tells her, with that wincing Cockney grit we're supposed to find so lovable. Before long (the fourth number actually) Shell's declaring undying love for one of Dad's male dancers, Straight Dave, who in turn takes a predictable fancy to drug dealer Mile End Lee. Throw in a couple of shameless music biz types, with every godawful camp cliché in gross attendance, and that's your lot.
Or rather it would be, without the glorious Frances Barber as Billie Tricks. Billie (think Anais Nin meets Marianne Faithfull) is the club's decadent darling, who choreographs the odd dance routine in between scoffing jiffy bags full of drugs. She alone is the glue which binds this peculiar jumble, with Harvey reserving some of his finest lines for her: "Mind the eyebrows darling, they cost a fortune. Do you think I was born with a look of constant surprise"?
It's not all negative vibes, however. Es Devlin’s set design makes remarkable use of the limited space, as the suspended bed scene displays. There's a real find, too, in debutant Stacey Roca as Shell. Demonstrating stage stamina already, she should find the inevitable move to small screen works a breeze.
As for the PSB contribution, how much more compelling it might have been if they'd taken their own bleakly wistful Behaviour masterpiece as inspiration. As it is, the dull thud of club beats and some torpid lyrics ("shot in the fatal cause of rock 'n' roll") sound like pale imitations of their own profound talents. Even Vampires, the one experimental stab, is rasped painfully out against a backdrop of writhing male lovers. You yearn for a Marc Almond or Scott Walker to grab the ears at this point with some truly Brechtian blues. Most eyes, you felt, were trained on the boys between the sheets.
With heavy irony, the whole project comes across like a straight notion of what gay nights out might necessarily entail. Think strutting dance routines, sex in the toilets, a shot in the hand and one in the arm. Sure it happens, and it does in the hetero world too, but nor is all straight art set permanently in sleazy nightclubs.