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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
West End guys
Frances Barber
Frances Barber steals the show as club hostess Billie
By BBC News Online's Emma Saunders

The Pet Shop Boys have been keeping a low profile recently.

But they are now back in the spotlight, swapping West End Girls for a West End musical, Closer To Heaven.

Based on the book by Jonathan Harvey, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have transferred their pop writing skills to the stage in a contemporary tale of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

Straight Dave (Paul Keating), a small town Irish boy, comes to London seeking fame and fortune. He finds himself auditioning as a podium dancer at a gay club.

But big, brash record producer Bob Saunders (Paul Broughton) has other ideas for the youngster - he wants him to front his latest boy band.

Power and ambition are not the only themes here though - the accompanying storyline is Dave's confused sexuality, as he falls in love first with the club manager's daughter, Shell, and then the local drug dealer, Mile End Lee.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe
The Pet Shop Boys visit familiar territory with numerous pop/house numbers
Dave and Shell (newcomer Stacey Roca) have a real chemistry between them, Roca being particularly sexy and effervescent.

It is a shame that the same cannot be said for Dave's subsequent relationship with Cockney geezer Mile End Lee (Tom Walker).

Walker was perfectly competent as the working class outsider, skulking among the glitteratti, plying his trade.

But considering Lee is the catalyst for Dave's "coming out", their relationship seemed somewhat unconvincing, at least in the early stages.

There were few signs of their attraction to one another prior to their relationship and it all seemed a little hurried.

Witty one-liners

Having said that, once they became lovers, a tenderness developed between them, cemented in a tasteful lovemaking scene in Act II.

The rest of the cast includes Frances Barber (better known for her straight roles), enjoying many witty one-liners as the drug-addled 70s hasbeen, club hostess Billie Tricks.

Her singing was not the greatest, but she managed to talk-sing her way through with aplomb, Geri Halliwell-style.

As you would expect, it was the stereotypes like camp icon Tricks (looking scarily like an older Martine McCutcheon) and pop manager Saunders (an hilarious cross between Roy Chubby Brown and Jimmy Saville) who gave us the most laughs.

But it was not all fun and games - a moral undercurrent persisted, with a serious, verging on preachy, message about the horror of drugs.

Innovative devices

Narcotics were not the only modern-day demons to face the scriptwriter's wrath - various digs were made at the cult of celebrity, materialism, and promiscuity, not to mention manufactured pop bands, albeit all with good humour.

The set was admirable, considering the stage was small by usual musical standards - every inch of space was used and there were some innovative devices, such as Dave and Shell lying in a bed hung vertically on a backdrop.

And what of the songs? The Pet Shop Boys did what they do best, poppy house tracks proving the most memorable, although the slow numbers were not at all bad either, particularly the haunting title track.

The music and dialogue were seamless, a accomplishment for any musical, although I'm hard pushed to recall a stand-out tune.

Closer to Heaven may not run as long as Cats (its numerous contemporary references will put paid to that) but its energy, humour and tenderness will probably result in a Rent-style cult following for some time to come.

Closer to Heaven is currently playing at the Arts Theatre, London

See also:

01 Jun 01 | Reviews
Closer to Heaven: Your views
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