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.