Julian Eaves reviews Frances Barber in Musik by Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey now playing at Leicester Square Theatre, London.
Leicester Square Theatre
11th February 2020
5 Stars Book Tickets
A broadside from bohemia, blasting the smug, complacent bourgeoisie out of their plush seats and into the coke-fuelled, high-octane reminiscences of a has-been wannabe icon. That might be a fair summary of this curiosity: an hour-long stand-up routine for a leading actress – the superb Frances Barber – lambasting a world that consistently fails to give her her due.
Eons ago, seemingly, writer Jonathan Harvey teamed up with a couple of pop musicians who fancied – as many of that denomination often do – they could make a go of things in the more ‘legitimate’ world of musical theatre. The result, ‘Closer To Heaven‘ (recently revived at Above The Stag), played a fascinating run of performances at the Arts Theatre, much loved by adoring fans (guilty as charged here), and worried by some uncomprehending reviewers. In a leading role, Our Frankie shone like a burning warehouse-full of roman candles in the pivotal role of nightclub hostess and ‘scene diva’, Billie Trix.
Nineteen years later, she’s back, barely changed by the passage of time, if anything fiercer and less compromising, in a one-woman show that is a faux autobiographical stroll through her back-catalogue of Pet Shop Boys songs – most of them newly minted pastiches created for this gig, but a couple (including the stirring rock’n’roll anthem, ‘Friendly Fire’) resurfacing from the original production. The big difference with these numbers, though, is that they are not just pop songs: they ‘sound’ like such, but they are, in fact, intimately tied into the action of the drama. Even if they are about something as ‘trivial’ and ‘throwaway’ as soup (cans).
Yes, this is a show where it pays dividends to be cultivated and really know your main players in Western pop culture; from Sartre to Warhol, from Dali to Madonna, names drop like nine-pins in the raucous monologue, each one – apparently – having stolen from La Trix something essential to them and their cult status. But, the choice of venue is deliberately tawdry and down-at-heel, knocking some of the shine of her claims to fame: the rather dated expanse of the Leicester Square Theatre resembles here more than ever the kind of tacky club that Trix and her kind are most – possibly only – at home in.
In many ways, the integration of music and narrative – combined with some ever-changing visuals from Milk Media – is more successfully handled here than in ‘Closer’: director Josh Seymour certainly glides with ease from one moment to the next, with some movement deftly applied by choreographer Anthony Whiteman. Lee Newby’s design aptly evokes the ‘stool and drinks table’ mis-en-scene of such solo events, with some dashing attire for Barber, and sharply imagined lighting from David Plater. Sound design is clear as a bell (and I was sitting virtually at the back of the long, wide, flat expanse of seating), by Fergus O’Hare.
Yet, it still feels incomplete. There is enough here to tantalise, to fascinate, to provoke, but it is all just a lot of banter’ish foreplay that never quite segues into full-scale action. The end of the show arrives, and we yearn to know what happens next. Where is the second act? Perhaps in her dressing-room, or in a restaurant, or club, or bar, or even ‘at home’? The show cries out for more. Harvey’s jokes are very good, Barber plays them perfectly and sings the PSB’s numbers as if they were written for her: and they were. Yet it feels like a splendid entree – a great big saucy chunk of filet mignon – but where are the vegetables? And where is dessert?
Maybe… in the pipeline? Who knows? All gossip relating to the above will be treated with utmost respect… and total indiscretion.
Writes book, music and lyrics of new musicals. Currently completing, ‘Generation Rent’, a contemporary college-reunion comedy. New project: ‘Kate The Great’, set in the City. Previous productions with: Iris Theatre; LOST Theatre; So-and-So’s Arts Club; Chichester Festival Theatre (National Theatre Connections); Courtyard Theatre; Arc Theatre, Trowbridge; Harlequin Theatre, Redhill. Also for Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, National Youth Theatre.