Closer to Heaven (Above the Stag)

As part of the retrospective of Jonathan Harvey’s work at Above the Stag, we have this fine revival of the musical he wrote with “Britain’s most successful musical duo”, The Pet Shop Boys. It’s directed by Steven Dexter and choreographed by Ashley Luke Lloyd.

Adele Anderson as Billie Trix
Adele Anderson as Billie Trix

Closer to Heaven is set in the dark and drug-filled spaces of gay clubland, where scantily clad dancers strut their stuff around self-proclaimed momma, the ageing pop art icon Billie Trix (scene-stealing Adele Anderson).

Into this world comes Straight Dave (Blake Patrick Anderson), first as a barman, then on the dance floor. When that isn’t enough he moves from one predator to another, from alcoholic club manager (Christopher Howell) to red-eyed horny record promoter (Ian Hallard).

Ian Hallard as Bob Saunders with Billie Hardy and Rhys Harding

The set (beautifully designed by David Shields and lit by Jack Weir) is all dancing coloured lights, mirrors and projections to set the scene: apart from one brief moment, it is always inside, in the depths of night, where lines of coke are snorted, floor shows are rehearsed, sexual favours traded, or confidences shared.

Straight Dave’s life is complicated when love shows up in the forms of a girl (Shell, streetwise daughter of her gay dad, played by a feisty Maddy Banks) and a boy (drug dealer Mile End Lee, doing his best to keep sex as a transaction for money, played with sensitivity and street-cred by Mikulas Urbank).

In the cacophony of clubland and the plastic of manufactured pop, there is a tender love story, albeit one tinged with tragedy. This is the world of the young and beautiful, chasing their dreams in hotpants and illuminated halos.

Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave, Maddy Banks as Shell Christian
Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave, Maddy Banks as Shell Christian

Billie Trix, Bob Saunders and Vic Christian, as the older characters in the seedy space The Pet Shop Boys clearly know so well, have their own crosses to bear, and their own routes to survival.

Surrounding herself with images of her youth, Billie recalls “loving many genders” in a Dietrich accent; Saunders paws at young boys with an eager fist full of money and nothing behind his dead eyed bravado; Christian sucks the lifeblood from his own addiction (Vampires).

Adele Anderson as Billie Trix, Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave
Adele Anderson as Billie Trix, Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave

The songs are a mix of club anthems, ballads, and in one section, a mini-musical about the mad emperor Caligula. Although you hear hints of PSB hits like Rent here and there in the opening bars, Closer to Heaven is full of original, catchy tunes and knowing dance routines.

The music and songs lift a plot that is part Cabaret with all its decadence, part Romeo and Juliet (and Romeo), and all the performances are fine, with Anderson particularly outstanding as the ageing diva who reveals herself to be the wise old woman who nurtures everyone around her (Friendly Fire).

Closer to Heaven closes on 31 August 2019. Photos by Gaz at PBG Studios.

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Fanny & Stella (Above the Stag, Main House)

Glenn Chandler’s witty piece about Boulton and Park, their cross-dressing, and their trial on charges relating to publc decency, returns to the Above the Stag following a successful run in 2015.

If there is any doubt about the subject matter of Fanny & Stella, or the spirit in which the evening will unfold, it is quickly dispelled with the group ditty “Sodomy on the Strand”.

Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles in Fanny and Stella.
Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles in Fanny and Stella.

Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles in Fanny and Stella.

With a music hall flourish and a large dose of swish, leading “he-she ladies” Tobias Charles (Fanny) and Kieran Parrott (Stella) evoke the spirit of the broadminded theatre of the 19th century, where one could even be unofficially contracted to an MP and carry cards to that effect.

Fanny, played with a bitchy charm by Charles in his professional debut, is the more confident of the pair, while Stella (despite planting a tree with every lover – “have you been to Epping Forest”) shows rather more vulnerability at times. They refer to each other as “dame” and “sister” and display expensive tastes in clothing.

Kieran Parrott and Blair Robertson in Fanny and Stella.
Kieran Parrott and Blair Robertson in Fanny and Stella.

With songs like “Has Anyone Seen My Fanny” the tale, supposedly told by the pair themselves in performance at the Bermondsey Working Men’s Club, relies on fruity language and innuendo. There are also more traditional-style numbers – where Stella’s mother (also Charles) has her own song, and where Stella finds her Scottish freedom, however fleetingly, in “Walk Me Up The Street”.

Chandler’s spicy lyrics about “unmentionable” things, with Charles Miller’s music, rattle along well with the accompaniment of musical director Aaron Clingham.

Mark Pearce in Fanny and Stella.
Mark Pearce in Fanny and Stella.

In a small company there are numerous opportunities for character parts – panto regular Mark Pearce is very good as a Scots landlady, a girlish maidservant, a comic detective, and a Yorkshireman. Christian Andrews is the closeted Lord Arthur, Tom Mann the bookish Louis, and Blair Robertson the American John Fiske.

Tom Mann in Fanny and Stella.
Tom Mann in Fanny and Stella.

All partake in the story and routines with glee and energy, and even draw out the tragedy of the situation where young men can be dismissed as “Mary Anns” and renters by those very pillars of society who seek their services.

Park and Boulton may have adopted fantasy personas to procure sex or simply to survive, but there is something sad about a twenty-something already rotting with syphilis, despite the smiles under bright red lipstick and voluminous petticoats.

Fanny and Stella continues at the Above the Stag. It is directed by Steven Dexter, designed by David Shields (who has his cast literally coming out of the closets), and choreographed by Carole Todd.

Photo credits: Gaz at PGB Studios.