“Give me hope
Give me all your love”
Everything is better with Frances Barber in it, it’s kind of a mantra for life. The Union Theatre’s recent production of Closer to Heaven shifted its entire allocation of tickets before it had even started but I wonder if that would have been the case if people had had a sneak preview of it. Despite its hard-working cast, it didn’t quite hit all the bases that would have warranted a sell-out success from after press night but you can’t begrudge them for that, the producers clearly tapped into a desire to see the show revived.
Its original run at the Arts Theatre was not a runaway hit, being curtailed after lacklustre sales (blamed in part on 9/11 affecting tourism) but an original cast recording of the soundtrack, featuring studio versions of the songs, was released, helping the show to maintain and even build on its cult status. And listening to the album, you can see why people were keen for it to return. Shorn of most of Jonathan Harvey’s lumpen book, the focus falls squarely on the cracking score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and the real depth of feeling that the cast bring to the material.
There’s a real erotic charge to the tenderness of Straight Dave and Mile End Lee’s first romantic encounter in one of the reprises of the title track – Paul Keating and Tom Walker both really shining, and Barber is perfectly cast as ageing club hostess Billie Trix and growling through stompers ‘My Night’ and ‘…Caligula’ you can see and hear how she would have ruled the stage. She also nails the vulnerability of ‘Friendly Fire’, the cracks in her voice ideally suited to the lyrics and David Burt elevates the underwritten character of Vic with a barnstorming performance in ‘Vampires’.
Interestingly, ‘In Denial’ (earlier recorded as a duet by the Pet Shop Boys and Kylie Minogue) still doesn’t really work as a narrative song, there’s something very clunky about it and it feels as forced here as it did onstage in Southwark. But overall, this recording feels like a far superior piece to the theatrical production that I saw and I’d highly recommend this album to anyone, especially those who felt disappointed by that show.