Only Heaven Knows review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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When playwright and composer Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows premiered in 1988, communities of gay men around the world were in the midst of a cultural battle brought on by the emergence of HIV/AIDS.

Not only were there important political battles to be fought to ensure men living with HIV/AIDS were given the dignity and medical treatment necessary, there were significant battles over how homosexuality would be viewed by the broader community given that deaths from AIDS were considered intrinsically linked to the sex lives of gay men.

But many communities around the world refused to bend and neuter their sexual self expression. In Sydney, Mardi Gras shifted its focus and became an extraordinary celebration of pride in a period when much of the world wanted to shame queer people.

Harding would go on to write Blood and Honour,  one of Australia’s first “AIDS plays”, in 1990. But Only Heaven Knows, his exploration of Sydney’s burgeoning gay community in the 1940s and ’50s, feels like a clear response to the climate in which it was written.

By looking back to the mid-century Sydney — and the way gay bohemia shaped itself with strength, defiance and love — Harding, and all the ghosts he conjured up, subtly pointed the way forward for all the misfits of this city.

Director Shaun Rennie calls on those same spirits in this sensitive, tastefully understated, and lovingly crafted new production, to point the way forward for 2017 audiences. We’re living in a time that’s throwing forward all new challenges to people who are not part of the dominant groups in our society, and Rennie’s production provides a glimmer of hope that we may be able to progress beyond the encroaching darkness.

In 1944, 17-year-old Tim (Ben Hall) moves from his home in Melbourne to Sydney’s Kings Cross. He quickly finds his tribe — a small group of gay men and the nightclub singer Guinea (Blazey Best) — and falls in love with an ex-serviceman, Cliff (Tim Draxl).

These people don’t have it easy — they can be, and some are, bashed and sent to prison simply for being gay — but it’s the strength of their community that allows them to live relatively fulfilled lives. That is until the second act, set in the Menzies era in the ’50s, which sees the community come under significant strain.

Everything about this production looks and sounds chic and in step with the material. Brian Thomson’s set is made up of four simple platforms, throwing focus onto the performances and Emma Vine’s superb period costuming. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting helps to define and redefine the space as the characters move through Sydney.

It would be difficult to imagine a better cast than the one assembled for this production. At the centre is Ben Hall, who sings very sweetly and traces his character’s journey from an enthusiastic and innocent teen through to a young man beginning to carve out his own life’s path. Tim Draxl is perfectly suave as Cliff, while Matthew Backer brings plenty of weight to the production’s darker moments as Alan, a gay man dealing with significant shame.

But the two scene-stealing performances come from Blazey Best, who is absolute dynamite as Guinea, and Hayden Tee in dual roles.

Tee plays the ghost of Lea Sonia, a famous real-life female impersonator from the Tivoli circuit, who was violently killed in 1943. Lea introduces the audience to the world of the Cross, providing perspectives on how Sydney has changed (some contemporary references have been added into the script). And, appropriately, she gets the most spectacular of Emma Vine’s costumes.

Tee also plays Lana, the most shameless and flamboyant member of the group, who has nothing but love for his friends.

One of the production’s most touching moments is Lana’s monologue, delivered to the ashes of a good friend who had recently died. Lana decides to scatter the ashes in a public toilet block in Hyde Park where he and the friend had spent many nights having sexual encounters with strangers.

It’s this treatment of the sex lives of these characters that’s arguably the most radical aspect of the work. Monogamous gay love stories were already fairly prevalent in the late 1980s, but Harding wrote in a way that didn’t shame other queer relationships.

Only Heaven Knows has, at its core, a more traditional gay romance which stands as a call for equality (amplified in Rennie’s production given the frustratingly stalled marriage equality debate). But it also allows other characters to talk in an open, playful and authentic way about casual sex, setting it apart from other gay dramas set in the same era.

As for Lana’s monologue, set in a public toilet frequented by men looking for illegal anonymous sex? Harding finds the humanity, tenderness and unlikely wholesomeness in the situation and the human connections being made.

The production manages to strike the right note of celebrating radical difference while calling for equality.

There are elements in Harding’s script that now feel quite dated and perhaps a little naive, but the way he’s captured an authentic sense of community is still extraordinarily prescient. His use of music is also superb; the songs are simple, played only on piano (Michael Tyack), but they illuminate the interior lives of these characters with great feeling.

Not only is it rare to see a revival of a successful piece of Australian music theatre, it’s even rarer to see one that feels so socially and politically resonant. This production manages to balance the personal with the political as it gathers Sydney audiences around their history. That’s immensely powerful.

Only Heaven Knows is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until July 1. Photo by Robert Catto

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