ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS
ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, Luckiest Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co at the Hayes Theatre, 30 May-1 July 2017. Photography by Robert Catto - above: Hayden Tee; below - Ben Hall and Tim Draxl, below again - Matthew Backer
Only Heaven Knows was first staged in 1988 at the Stables as an unlikely yet wildly popular and successful Bicentenary celebration. It’s a play with music rather than fully-fledged musical with book, lyrics and music by Alex Harding, loosely based on Jon Rose’s 1961 book At The Cross (growing up in King’s Cross, Sydney’s Soho).
It’s Kings Cross in 1944 and a guide in the form of glorious drag queen Lea Sonia (Hayden Tee) sets the scene. He is American, a (real life) Tivoli performer stranded by the tides of war and a bold adornment to the day and nightlife of the area, which is alive with carousing servicemen and those who serve and prey on them. Within moments he is dead – pushed in front of a tram by an unknown assailant and hereafter with us in wigged and gowned and sweetly sardonic spirit.
Into this milieu 17-year-old Tim (Ben Hall) arrives, wide-eyed and helpless as a kitten, from a suburban Melbourne upbringing that reviled his pretty queerness. He’s instantly rolled for his suitcase by a gang of toughs and knocks on the door of a dingy house owned by Guinea (Blazey Best). She has long forgotten the almost illegible notice stuck in her front window but Tim is hopeful that his meagre savings will secure the room offered in it.
Guinea is a club singer, rough as guts and golden-hearted: Tim moves in, lucks a job in a local deli and love in the form of older (late 20s) ex-soldier Cliff (Tim Draxl) and friends in Cliff’s ex-comrade and lover Alan (Matthew Backer) and the brazenly flamboyant Lana (also Hayden Tee – in toupée, moue and seriously bona togs – excellent period costumes by Emma Vine).
Drawing on his own experiences as a curly-haired pretty boy in Darlo/the Cross when sauntering down the street could end in a beating or worse, Alex Harding’s book creates authentic characters, albeit from an earlier era. That’s partly because the shadows and fears that haunted gay life for Harding (the AIDS pandemic and its social, physical and political effects) were somewhat similar – in their impact – to the illegality and criminalising of gays of the Only Heaven Knows decades.
The scenes from everyday life among these friends and neighbours are vividly played out on a set of deliberate and intelligent simplicity (designer Brian Thomson, with lighting by Trent Suidgeest). There are four variously elevated playing areas that leave their purpose to the imagination (club stage, street, bedroom, living room and so on). The stage’s only adornments are an occasionally pulled glitter curtain, a briefly appearing iron bedstead and a chair whose ordinariness makes its use for electro-aversion therapy quite vile. The audience is left to conjure up the richness inherent in the stories and their telling and it's remarkably effective. The same can be said of the music – an unseen solo piano played by Michael Tyack from musical supervision by Daniel Edmonds – and you’d swear there’s a band and strings tucked behind the back wall. Neil McLean’s sound design too: it teems with the life of the streets and its people and whether it’s beyond the walls of the theatre or within can occasionally be tricky to decipher.
Director Shaun Rennie has assembled and orchestrated a beautiful production from all these elements. The essential period feel of the piece (40s and 50s, staged in the 80s) is evident in the daffy bravado of Hayden Tee’s Lana as well as his electrifying bravura vocal performance as the knowingly glamorous yet doomed Lea Sonia. It’s an extraordinary pair of performances to bring home after his years as the uber-butch Javert of Les Miz on Broadway and the West End.
Extraordinary too is Matthew Backer as Alan, the court-martialled ex-soldier and a young man whose family and self hatred lead him to the dire attempt to rid himself of his homosexuality through the vicious and stupid aversion therapy. His turmoil, sadness and authenticity are heartbreaking, particularly in the same week that Margaret Court’s vicious and stupid “Christianity” is taking us right back there again.
As the lovers, Ben Hall seamlessly makes the transition from teenaged innocence to ambitious and frustrated young writer, while Tim Draxl’s journey is in the opposite direction: confident “older” man becomes the frightened chap who wants the dull security of home and hearth and to hell with London. That they live together as “cousins” and wouldn’t dream of touching in public is the reality of their lives – and those of millions of others – just as Lana’s death-defying cottaging adventures signify another reality.
The night club singer Guinea occupies yet another aspect of that reality: Blazey Best balances with tremulous confidence on the edge of the abyss that is Guinea’s life. She is alone in a dangerous world and expects little or nothing from it, so when her expectations prove correct she is sad but not surprised. Like Hayden Tee, when she lets rip into her vocal numbers, the roof trembles and the audience is electrified. It’s a gorgeous performance.
It’s the boys’ show however, and Tim, Cliff and Alan are realistic portraits of another time, although tragically, the suicide rates and stories from country towns around Australia tell us they are also of today. Equality – in marriage or otherwise – is still something to be fought for and demanded. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely at least that nowadays a drag queen could be arrested for lip-synching to Doris Day in a public place, as happens in the play. She’s way more likely to end up starring in an AAMI car insurance commercial.
Only Heaven Knows is yet another welcome revival from Luckiest and the Hayes. Its naivete is true and accurate, while the other, harder truths resonate as loudly now as they ever did. It’s deeply and honestly of its time and place and that’s thrilling for an audience: a show with a love song to Sydney sung by a handsome naif is instantly recognisable and appealing! It’s by turns funny, touching, sad and illuminating. Recommended.