Closer to Heaven – Turbine Theatre, London

Reviewer: Sonny Waheed

Music and Lyrics: Pet Shop Boys

Book: Jonathan Harvey

Director: Simon Hardwick

It’s 23 years since the Johnathan Harvey/Pet Shop Boys collaboration burst onto the West End. And, in this latest revival, we get a more immersive vision of their tale of drugs, debauchery and self-discovery.

Set in London’s gay club scene at the turn of the millennium, it’s a collection of tales from various characters working at Vic’s Bar. Leading the charge is drug-ravaged, faded 70’s pop icon Billie Trix (Frances Ruffelle) whose glory years are long behind and she’s funding her excessive drug habit through nightly club performances. Her equally drugged-up boss, club owner Vic (Kurt Kansley), is coming to terms with the fact that he’s now building up a relationship with his estranged daughter, Shell (Courtney Bowman) whom he abandoned on realising he was gay.

Joining them is the new barman and wannabe pop star Dave (Glenn Adamson) who, despite claiming to be straight and dating the boss’ daughter, is oddly attracted to the club’s resident drug dealer Lee (Connor Carson). To finish off this collection of misfits is egocentric and lascivious music impresario Bob Saunders (David Muscat) who feeds off the desires for fame of the many young and impressionable boys who come his way.

Throughout the course of the story, we weave in and out of these characters’ lives and how they all entwine with one another. Predominantly thrown together via circumstance and necessity, their tenuous friendships are enhanced and ultimately destroyed by the party life that forms their living world.

Harvey’s script aims to bring this vibrantly chaotic world to life and, in the main, he fails. It feels like there’s too much story for the two-hour run time. All of the characters become exaggerated caricatures of who they’re meant to be, and the dialogue is flat and very on this nose. This is more a C-grade daytime soap opera than a dramatic insight into London’s nightlife subculture.

When, on the few occasions where Harvey’s mordacious wit is on display (mainly through camp barbarous remarks from Bob Saunders), the energy lifts and you get a sense of what this could be. The addition of the Pet Shop Boys’ songs helps somewhat. Their blend of intelligent storytelling on a background of electronic music anchors the piece effectively in its club culture setting whilst also giving the narrative some elements of emotional depth. However, this is impeded by a lacklustre sound mixing where the live vocals feel very separate from the quieter, more muted, musical backtrack.

The one shining glory in the production is David Shields’ set design. Taking over what feels like 40% of the floor space, a wonderful staircase emerges from a circular opening in a brick wall and merges into a catwalk that bisects the theatre floorspace. Festooned with neon lights and glitter balls, it’s a grand and opulent setting.

But this doesn’t make up for what the show is ultimately missing: emotion. While Harvey’s script falters, Director Simon Hardwick drives all the performances up to 11. It doesn’t work… it’s all a bit too shouty and self-aware. The exceptions to this are Courtney Bowman’s nuanced portrayal of the daughter in search of love and stability, and David Muscat’s nastily camp portrayal of the music impresario.

Overall, Closer to Heaven is a disappointment. It lacks emotional engagement, humour, and narrative cohesion that we know both Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys can deliver in spades.

Runs until 30 June 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Style over substance

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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