Closer to Heaven musical at the Turbine Theatre – review

The Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey cult classic runs until 30 June

Glenn Adamson and Conor Carson in a scene from Closer to Heaven at the Turbine Theatre
Glenn Adamson and Conor Carson in Closer to Heaven, © Mark Senior

There’s no getting around it. The book for Closer to Heaven, Jonathan Harvey’s 2001 musical with original songs by Pet Shop Boys, is a bit of a dud. Stuffed with underdeveloped plots, tiresome exposition, clicheś and sentimentality, it contributed to the premiere’s tepid reception. And any revivals that have fared well since have done so in spite of it.

Simon Hardwick’s new production fights this bear trap of a book with heart. And while it sometimes seems that no amount of talent will wrench the cast free from its teeth, the production does triumph on more than one occasion. When it does, it’s down to intoxicating atmosphere, some heroic acting, and a winning wallop of zany camp.

Designer David Shields transforms The Turbine Theatre into ‘Vic’s Nightclub’. We perch at cabaret tables, peering through smoke at faces illuminated by Jack Weir’s neon tubes and flashing spotlights, our ears attuning to a persistent thudding baseline. It’s undeniably transporting. And it propels us, at least part of the way, through the muddle of underbaked plots that follow.

There’s club owner Vic Christian’s substance abuse and his reunion with his adult daughter Shell, whom he left (along with her mother) when she was five, after realising he was gay. A love triangle between Shell, wannabe singer ‘Straight Dave’ and local drug dealer ‘Mile End Lee’. Plus the shenanigans of Billie Trix, the club’s washed-up hostess with as many issues as Seventies anecdotes.

Courtney Bowman and David Muscat in a scene from Closer to Heaven at the Turbine Theatre
Courtney Bowman and David Muscat in Closer to Heaven, © Mark Senior

Only one plot convinces us to care: the love affair between Dave (Glenn Adamson) and Lee (Connor Carson). Their bond builds enticingly, and Carson is the unassuming star of the night, his solos in particular offering moving glimpses of the hurt heart beneath the East End bravado. Sadly, the other connections on stage falter, thanks in no small part to the short shrift they’re given on the page. Shell (Courtney Bowman) and Dave lack chemistry, and the rocky relationship between Shell and Vic (Kurt Kansley) is hard to buy.

But while the relationships might fall flat, the cast’s singing soars, with Bowman, Adamson and the show’s star turn Frances Ruffelle as Billie Trix shining brightest. The largely catchy songs blend signature Pet Shop Boys synth with musical theatre sensibility. But there are some weaker offerings: “In Denial” in particular has some truly awful rhymes.

Undeterred, the cast get stuck into each number, and into Christopher Tendai’s buoyant, racy choreography, with buckets of energy and sex appeal.

The musical numbers are also where this production lets loose its secret weapon: self-aware, beautifully pitched camp chaos (clothed in an excellent array of risqué, sequinned costumes). And this weapon appears in some of the book’s stronger scenes, too, wrenched gleefully from the page by a couple of comedy torchbearers.

Ruffelle’s Billie Trix is brilliantly bonkers – reminiscent of Puck, the Prodigy’s Keith Flint, and Cabaret’s Emcee, all wrapped up in a ridiculous accent.

And David Muscat is a joy as slimy record executive Bob Saunders – his unapologetically vile antics climaxing in “Shameless” where he cavorts about in sparkly devil’s horns while his cronies merrily belt “we have no integrity!” on repeat.

With a boatload more moments like these, the production would be a riot from start to finish. But, within the limits of that bear-trap book, the production can only do so much.

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Closer to Heaven

Final performance: 27 July 2024