'Musik': Theater Review

Richard Davenport
Frances Barber in 'Musik'
A scrappy but hilarious diva comeback.
9/7/2019

Frances Barber, Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys revisit their 2001 musical 'Closer to Heaven' in this fictionalized one-woman cabaret show.

Like a dormant love affair that unexpectedly flames back into life years later, Musik is what happens when the creators of a fantastic fictional character cannot quite bear to let her die. Playwright Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing) first collaborated with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of electro-pop duo Pet Shop Boys on their 2001 West End musical Closer to Heaven, which earned a mixed reception and closed after nine months. But Frances Barber's standout performance as bitchy bohemian Eurodiva Billie Trix was a comic tour de force, its full potential untapped.

Now, a mere 18 years later, Harvey has reunited with Barber to flesh out Billie's life story with a spinoff sequel in fictionalized cabaret form, complete with fresh songs by Tennant and Lowe. Musik world premiered to positive reviews in Edinburgh last month and is now enjoying a short West End encore, with plans afoot to book a longer London run. At just an hour long, this production inevitably feels like a slight coda to a larger work. That said, it still boasts more killer comic lines than Closer to Heaven, plus some fine musical interludes and a deliciously high-camp star turn from Barber.

Born in the rubble of postwar Berlin, Billie Trix is a pop diva, queer icon, soft-porn film star, socialite, muse and shameless celebrity name-dropper with a wild sexual history and prodigious appetite for drugs. Zipping through her life story from the stage in snappy biographical vignettes, Billie emerges as a kind of cocaine-snorting Zelig figure, spending most of the late 20th century mingling among key arty party scenes in New York, Paris and London. Harvey and Barber both clearly love this comic grotesque creation, a knowing amalgam of legendary divas like Nico, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull, plus maybe just a hint of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous.

Essentially a female drag queen, Billie is a proudly unreliable narrator, brash and haughty and hilariously lacking in self-awareness. By her own immodest account, her brilliant ideas served as uncredited inspiration to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Madonna, Damien Hirst and Donald Trump. "I am art," she declares at one point, later building on the joke with "I am music" and "I am gender." Harvey's snappy monologue sets Barber up with various running gags, from highbrow cultural allusions to smutty innuendo. "I have always been a whore for blood sausage," she lustily proclaims early in the show. This is British humor at its most cheerfully puerile, elevated to a fine art by Barber's masterful comic timing and well-observed mid-Atlantic hybrid accent.

Between chunks of monologue, Barber performs six Tennant and Lowe songs, four of them newly written for this production. The best of the fresh material is "Mongrel," a pastiche Brechtian ballad in the sardonic tradition of Cabaret, and "Ich Bin Musik," a thumping Eurodisco anthem which suggests the genre may be impervious to parody. Billie's nostalgic swan song, "For Every Moment," packs an emotional punch too, partly because it's illustrated with a photo-montage of Barber herself in younger days. But none of the new numbers can eclipse the tender confessional torch song "Friendly Fire," which first appeared in Closer to Heaven and is wisely revived in Musik.

Whether future theater audiences will prove quite so enamored with Billie's vulgar charms as Barber, Harvey, Tennant and Lowe appear to be is a moot point. Musik is packed with raucous laughs and powered by a great star performance, but it inevitably feels scrappy in this hourlong format, more a series of comic sketches than a full-blooded character study. Such a rich creation probably deserves a deeper, longer, more crafted stage treatment. This hasty post-Edinburgh transfer also lacks a little in technical polish, but these issues may well be ironed out when the show finds a more settled London home. Ultimately, Billie Trix has earned her extended encore through sheer comic charisma, however long this unexpected comeback lasts.

Venue: Leicester Square Theatre, London
Cast: Frances Barber
Director: Josh Seymour
Playwrights: Jonathan Harvey, Pet Shop Boys
Songs: Pet Shop Boys
Set and costume designer: Lee Newby
Lighting designer: David Plater
Sound designer: Fergus O'Hare
Presented by Cahoots Theatre Company