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Closer To Heaven: Union Theatre

April 29, 2015

(Seen at the preview performance on 26th April 2015).

If nothing else, this musical is the sharpest reminder of just how quickly time flies in the 21st Century. “Prepare to be shocked” is the opening theme… well, it might have been back then… but today, sadly, we are so used to drugs / gay relationships / manipulative media men and general hedonism that this script manages to be both dated and rather tame.

Luckily, it doesn’t matter all that much. For this is an utter triumph of presentation for the Union Theatre. Once again, Adam Braham finds a cast capable of raising an aging show to unimaginable heights.

Director Gene David Kirk, musical director Patrick Stockbridge, choreographer Philip Joel, designer David Shield and costume designer Barbara Williams place us firmly in a seedy 2000 club, authentic down to the phones and computers they use (nice touches) and making witty use of the in-built Union Theatre architecture to maximum effect. Inspired pre-show immerses the audience instantly, and the cast proceed to reel us in for the night.

The most fascinating thing, oddly, is how the cast here interact. It’s very noticeable that every young person on stage shines brightest when playing with a more experienced performer.

In particular, the father / daughter pairing of Amy Matthews (Shell) and Craig Berry (Vic) is a dynamic that the “EastEnders” writers should consider importing to television directly the run is over. Berry makes an emotionally confused character rock solid to the audience, his sexuality always and never in doubt.

With him, Matthews gives a hint of a useful evolving musical theatre character actor, as opposed to her somewhat stilted early conversation with young Jared Thompson (Straight Dave). It’s a shame that her progress in the show is then only hindered by the script allowing her character to rather peter out.

Thompson does get the better written of the young lead roles. Managing to carry the ending with an impressive “For All of Us;” he also demonstrates a similar strength in experienced / younger acting when playing a difficult scene with excellent Ken Christiansen (Bob).

As a catalyst, Katie Meller’s Billie Tricks is an excellent host, with shades of Patsy from “Absolutely Fabulous” about her – yet delivering the best, most meaningful, scene in the production, as she and Matthews discuss ageing and reality dawns on the younger woman.

In supporting roles, Connor Brabyn (Mile End Lee) and Ben Kavanagh (Flynn) are actually reflections of each other. One may deal drugs, the other be a music assistant, yet both are trapped by circumstance and have an anger that drives them. Two thoughtful and effective pieces of work.

Most worthy of mention, though, are “Billie’s Babes,” Ellie Mitchell, Tamsyn Blake, Grace Reynolds, Martin Harding, Ben Somerside, Jamie Firth and Alex Tranter. As club dancers and general ensemble, they are always worth watching – high energy and well executed ensemble dance routines, plus plenty of inventive interplay that puts any average West End cast to shame. In particular, watch out for some hilarious boy/girl interactions, and also a fine piece of characterisation (Ellie Mitchell) as drugs take hold of her near the end of act two.

If this show proves too much “of its time” to revive again, then this production has to be its definitive swan-song. If you can get tickets, go see.

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