Closer To Heaven : London Arts Theatre

First night of the Pet Shop Boys/Jonathan Harvey extravaganza... and 'The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg' it ain't...

Tricky things musicals. For every ‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’ – subtle evocations of love and loss communicated through bittersweet melodies that don’t need to sledgehammer their way into your head – there’s a ‘Rent’, all desperately camp posturing and overwrought tunes. Over the pond, ‘The Producers’ is redefining what the comic musical can be – sophisticated and hysterical, histrionic and insightful, the perfect marriage of Broadway glitz and cinematic truth.

There were high hopes for ‘Closer To Heaven’, the Pet Shop Boys long-awaited foray into an arena dominated by tired warhorses like ‘Miss Saigon’. After all, they did ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Left To My Own Devices’ and ‘Dreaming Of The Queen’ and scores of ace songs perfectly primed for a transfer to the West End, where ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Buddy’ and even that dodgy Dusty Springfield musical have proved that it doesn’t all have to be about drippy ballads. Swooping, sweeping opera house stompers with intelligent lyrics detailing the nuances of romance and rejection, catchy enough for the kids, highbrow enough for the arty crowd – surely they could take the musical in a whole new direction, right?

It’s a shame, then, that ‘Closer To Heaven’ is such a disappointment. The main problem here is that the production itself is sorely lacking: the Arts Theatre is tiny, meaning grand gestures are out of the question, and the Pet Shop Boys‘ music, which so often teeters on the edge of brilliant high-camp histrionics, needs more than tawdry costumes and dance routines choreographed by someone who watched the first five minutes of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ then went blind.

Most of the songs are great, of course – opening number ‘My Night’ has a definite show-tune propulsion, while ‘Positive Role Model’ is a full-on ‘Very’-esque screamer, and ‘Vampires’, like the title track’s refrain, is undeniably affecting. But the arrangements lack the lustre and drama of Pet Shop Boys originals. The Neil’n’Chris demo of ‘For All Of Us’ is a sweet, string-drenched epic; here, sung by leading queen Paul Keating, it’s merely accompanied by piano and synth, and it begins to drag.

In terms of the music, though, it still could’ve worked. Unfortunately it’s written by Jonathan Harvey, a man who thinks he’s a 21st century Joe Orton, but is in actual fact a man who’d have been kicked off the ‘Carry On’ movies for being “a bit obvious”. The plot of ‘Closer To Heaven’ was obviously knocked out in between brainstorming sessions for the two gags he’ll stretch across the next series of ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’. It exists in a bizarre bad-’70s-sitcom vacuum of limp-wristed gay men, working-class bits of rough, past-it druggy slags and grasping wannabes. Hardly a sympathetic character in sight (save, ironically, for the man we should despise, Paul Broughton’s energetic Tom Watkins-alike Bob Saunders), no breathless set pieces (we won’t go into the Caligula scene), no fall-off-seat-laughing gags (“My love life was like Vietnam: a lot of protest and then it all ended in the ’70s”. What?) and he leaves narrative strands dangling at the end like winnits from bum hair, to coin a Harvey-esque phrase.

But hey! It’s supposed to be all about broad emotional strokes and over-the-top performances and bums and tits and knob gags right? That’s what makes Britain great! Well, maybe. But then that’s the same attitude that claims Babs Windsor’s boobs and Dick Emery and “I’m free!” are somehow valuable parts of our cultural tradition. But really, in private, we know that’s just embarrassing. And you can imagine that in ten years’ time, Neil and Chris might feel the same way about ‘Closer To Heaven’ as they now feel about ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’: a brave attempt to mess with the genre, scuppered by an overdose of kitsch.

Christian Ward