Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 26 – Jul 1, 2017
Music, Book, Lyrics: Alex Harding
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Mathew Backer, Blazey Best, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall, Hayden Tee
Image by Robert Catto
Tim and Cliff’s love story begins in 1944, probably the most dangerous of times for gay men, with many impounded in European concentration camps, and the rest of the world correspondingly paranoid and cruel in their treatment of homosexuality. Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows remembers queer life in mid-20th Century Sydney, and the resilient community that persisted to thrive, with a dignified integrity, in the face of unrelenting and brutal persecution.
It is the subplots that captivate. Minor characters who chronicle struggles of a traumatic past, retain their pertinence, proving themselves more resonant than a central romance that seems unremarkable by comparison. The work is flamboyantly sentimental, but is only occasional moving. We are engaged instead by its textual complexity, seduced by an opportunity to analyse its sociopolitical connotations and to examine the degrees of relevance its narratives continue to hold over our existence today.
Production design attempts to address the frequent changes of settings, but scene transitions can often lack elegance. Performers take awkwardly long walks before finding the stage. Entrances and exits notwithstanding, the show is sensitively brought together by director Shaun Rennie, with a warm sincerity that elevates a slightly dated play from 1988, to something that is strikingly urgent. The ghost of Lea Sonia, a drag queen character, has the freedom to travel through time, to make references about marriage equality, and Grindr, so that history is resurrected for good reason.
There are marked divergences in terms of singing ability, but the cast is surprisingly cohesive. In the world of musical theatre, scene-stealing show-offs are almost encouraged, so it is a rare treat to be able to adore every performer equally. Matthew Backer is impressive with the thoroughness of nuance he introduces to all his roles, and is truly unforgettable in a scene that brutally portrays the experience of electroconvulsive therapy inflicted upon “sexual deviants” of the time. Blazey Best and Hayden Tee are excellent with their comedy, both actors sharp and confident, while adhering to the subtle tones of the production. The lovebirds, played by Tim Draxl and Ben Hall, are tender and effortlessly convincing, making the most out of fairly colourless material.
It is important that young ones know our queer histories, and it is important that love stories are made for people who identify differently from the mainstream. In 1944, queer folk had few past lessons to draw upon, and nothing in the future that they could look forward to. Only Heaven Knows allows us to grow with the knowledge that people had been through worse, but things keep getting better. It also serves as reminder the depth of depravity that societies are capable of, and that a sense of moral vigilance must never be taken lightly. The game of endless persecution may shift its focus away from one community to another, but those who had suffered must not be complacent in their newfound emancipation, but continue with a resistance against senseless violence and oppression.