Asked to name only a small handful of Australian musicals, it’s likely even the most ardent local musical theatre fans would struggle to name more than a couple. Less likely still would be the ability to recite titles that have taken our stages longer ago than the last decade.
With a book, music and lyrics penned by playwright Alex Harding, Only heaven knows had its world premiere at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross in May 1988. A number of productions of Harding’s work have since been staged, including the acclaimed 1995 production starring David Campbell. Now, on the eve of its 30th birthday, Only heaven knows has arrived at the Hayes Theatre in a brand new production by Luckiest Productions, under the direction of Shaun Rennie (who’s previously directed Rent and You’re a good man, Charlie Brown at the intimate Sydney venue).
Only heaven knows begins its story in Sydney in 1944, when 17-year-old Tim (Ben Hall) leaves his country home to pursue a life in the city. He arrives in Kings Cross and meets Guinea (Blazey Best), a nightclub singer, and her friend Lana (Hayden Tee), an older gay man from New Zealand. Tim rents a room in Guinea’s apartment, and eventually becomes acquainted with Cliff (Tim Draxl). Cliff is older than Tim and shares an apartment with Alan (Matthew Backer). Several years earlier, Cliff and Alan were court martialled, imprisoned and kicked out of the army for having a sexual encounter. Despite the age difference, Tim and Cliff instantly hit it off and soon commence a relationship.
In the second act, the story moves forward 12 years, well into the Menzies era, which was characterised by an adherence to staunchly conservative family values. It’s quickly established that the characters inhabit a world in which they’re largely excluded from society and must therefore overcome a number of substantial challenges. Tim and Cliff now rent a property together, but must pose as cousins because of their very real fear that revealing their true relationship will see them thrown out of their home. Meanwhile, Alan resorts to drastic measures in an effort to change his orientation. At this point, the road ahead for each of the characters looks far more arduous than we would’ve expected in the piece’s early chapters. So, what will become of each individual?
Only heaven knows premiered at a time when HIV/AIDS was sweeping across the world, and bringing with it great hostility towards the gay community. At that time, this story promoting the need for tolerance and compassion would have certainly packed a punch. And while the political and social temperature has changed significantly since that time, there are still barriers the gay community remains yet to overcome in Australia (the right to marry at the top of the list) but, beyond the gay community, there’s a strong need within the population at large to believe in the ability of tight communities, bound together for a common cause, to affect real change in the world, to feel empowered to take a stand against actions, they believe, run contrary to the greater good.
It’s for that reason that Only heaven knows deserves re-visiting decades on from its conception. Rennie continues to demonstrate his aptitude for musical theatre direction by staging a sensitive and stripped back re-telling of what is a simple story. It’s not a show that has an enormously memorable score nor is it a hugely sophisticated piece of theatre. It’s a show that relies on the quality of its actors, and a skilful directorial hand guiding the players towards authenticity to ensure that, as a play, it has poignancy and power.
Hall is well cast as the energetic ingénue, keen to embrace what city life has to offer. His characterisation of Tim is believably innocent and highly impressionable and, as a result, he’s also greatly likeable. Draxl is also impressive as Cliff, a man who knows what he wants in life, including in love, and exhibits a palpably fierce loyalty towards his on-stage partner throughout. Backer is excellent in bringing Alan to life, especially strong in the second act when the character is in decline and embarks upon his efforts to change. There are moments when it’s genuinely gut-wrenching to observe what Alan experiences, and it’s a credit to Backer that he’s able to achieve what feels like such a truthful performance.
Best is wonderful as the spicy club singer, effortlessly delivering some of the piece’s best comedic moments. Tee also reveals a talent for comedy as Lana, the elder of the group, but also moves the audience in one scene, in which he lays a friend’s ashes to rest. Tee’s performance is a stark contrast from the stern, unfalteringly stoic portrayal of Javert for which he’s become well known on Australian stages (and now, around the world) and attests to his admirable flexibility as an actor. Tee also assumes the role of Lea Sonia, a high profile female impersonator of the 1930s, who died as a result of what’s believed to have been a gay hate crime. It’s a role in which Tee is similarly convincing.
The score is performed entirely on a single piano by Michael Tyack. Emma Vine’s costume designs indicate discernible deference to time and place, while Trent Suidgeest’s unobtrusive and well considered lighting choices work well for the piece.
Only heaven knows is not only a reflection on how far society has progressed, but a reminder of the ability we all possess to be change-makers in the world we inhabit today.
ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing until 1 July 2017
Times: Mon 6:30pm*, Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm
*No performance Mon 12 June
*Extra matinee Wed 14 June at 2pm
Price: $68 Mon-Thu, $74 Sat matinee, $78 Fri & Sat nights
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337