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Review: Musik (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh)

Frances Barber stars in the Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey's piece

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Frances Barber
© The Other Richard

Billie's back! Billie Trix first appeared as the narrator in the Pet Shop Boys' 2001 musical Closer to Heaven, incarnated then, as now, by Frances Barber. For the 2019 Fringe the original creative team of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, together with script-writer Jonathan Harvey, have reunited to give Billie a show of her own.

But why pay that compliment to what was a fairly minor character in the original? Because of what she represents. In her own words, Billie is Art: "Ich bin Musik", as the title song goes. There's a mesmeric quality to Billie Trix. "I'm a gift to the world!" she repeatedly says, and you believe it! This show is to be her telling of her own story, and the more juicy and sensational the better: "it's open heart surgery; so pass me the knife!"

An hour spent in Billie's company is a tour through counter-culture since 1945. The celebrity acquaintances she name-drops range from Madonna and Shania Twain through to the Beatles and Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst intervenes to save her in a cat-fight with Tracy Emin. Harvey's script puts her at the centre of the unfolding modern world, and makes Billie the personification of the undying creative spirit that refuses to be tied down.

But Billie is also desperately vulnerable and, ultimately, alone. She's an unreliable narrator, telling her tale through a drug-fuelled haze, and she slates others for the faults that are so obvious in herself but that she cannot see. It's that gaggle of contradictions that makes her so compelling. She's tougher than the times she lives in, but she's also inwardly brittle and, crucially, you root for her despite her manifest faults. She'd be a nightmare as a friend, but she'd be fantastic at a party.

Frances Barber is a tour-de-force. This is her first one-woman-show, but you wouldn't guess it from the way she holds the audience. She oozes personality with her sultry presence and smoky voice and, one fluffed line apart, she's completely in command of her part, bringing Billie's kaleidoscopic contradictions to compelling life.

Harvey's script is racy, sharp and well observed. He enmeshes the revelation of Billie's character with the narrative of the post-1945 world, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, though the section on Donald Trump is predictable and even a little smug. Still, the tone of affectionate mockery is pitched just right, and the set-pieces are a hoot, particularly the description of Billie's mother's funeral.

The songs aren't bad either. The Pet Shop Boys have tapped into the style of their multiple hits, which their fans will love, to create songs that sound familiar but are also pastiches of, say, late '70s disco for "Ich bin Musik", and there are even times when they appear to make fun of themselves with the self-consciously naff "Soup". The final song sums up the message of the whole show: live your life "For Every Moment", even though you don't know what lies in store. Even as Billie goes off at the end on her latest hair-brained artistic adventure, you can't help but wish her well.