Alex Harding's AIDS-era musical love-note to bohemian Kings Cross gets a revival at the Hayes – that'll make you cry
For decades Sydney has clung to an identity embroiled in ambition, status, and business that has been entirely offset by its pockets of bohemia, enclaves of misfits and community of artists, lovers, and seekers of something liberating – something more to life.
This is the tension at the heart of Only Heaven Knows, a lesser known Australian musical (first produced at Darlinghurst's Stables Theatre in 1988) about the changing face of Kings Cross and its queer community. It’s currently playing at the Hayes Theatre, a short walk from the Coke sign (which makes a delightful appearance thanks to costume designer Emma Vine), and in it, the spirit of Sydney has never felt more enduring.
We’re welcomed to the story by Lea Sonia (Hayden Tee, interrupting a West End stint in Les Mis to take this role) a real-life drag performer on the Tivoli circuit who was killed in a homophobic hate crime. Her spirit is watching over the Cross, and us here in the Hayes. She introduces the story and takes care of us, her people, during it.
It’s 1944. Tim (Ben Hall) is a fresh-faced and handsome 17 years old, bursting with endearing innocence. He has left a tough family life in Melbourne for the promise of Sydney. Before long he’s stumbled into a job at a deli, a room in Kings Cross, and a new family. There’s Guinea (Blazey Best), his landlord, her dear friend Lana (Tee again), and then – and then – there’s Cliff.
Cliff (Tim Draxl) is a bit older than Tim, an ex-serviceman with a dishonourable discharge – he was caught in something of an embrace with fellow corporal and now best friend Alan (Matthew Backer) – and, from the moment he sees Tim, he’s completely besotted.
Written by Alex Harding, the musical follows the story of this found family through the end of the Second World War, past deaths and parties and growing closeness. It exalts in the relative freedom of the 1940s, when the queer community, and women making a life on their own, were left relatively alone to carve out their own lives adjacent to mainstream society. It pays just as loving tribute to cruising and casual sex as it does to the deep, monogamous love between Cliff and Tim – but what a difference a decade or so can make to a city.
The second act jumps forward to 1956 and the Menzies government’s sharp, punishing conservatism has penetrated the Kings Cross bubble. The characters face violence, housing insecurity, open hostility, and even – heartbreakingly – the allure of horrific medical ‘cures’ for homosexuality. Can Tim and Cliff’s relationship of more than a decade survive in this kind of reality? Will the cabaret clubs that employ Lana and Guinea remain open? Will these lovable, irresistible people be okay?
While it takes a few minutes to find its feet, Shaun Rennie’s production is open-hearted but not sentimental, appealingly earnest and refreshingly, unselfconsciously Australian. Brian Thompson’s versatile, four-level set and Trent Suidgeest’s lights create a sense of space and possibility in the tiny theatre, and the show – which is more scene than song – moves at a mostly fine, well-judged clip.
The cast is one of the best ever assembled at the Hayes with the calibre of Best’s finely observed, generous performance, and Tee’s warm, loving approach to Lana creating an immediate sense of trust and excellence onstage. Backer, like Best, is one of our most compelling performers, and as Alan he is lovely and caustic and worryingly conflicted. Newcomer Hall, and music theatre newcomer Draxl, thrive in their roles as romantic leads; the way Draxl says ‘mate’ could break your heart, and Hall’s face is almost unbelievably unguarded and expressive – you can’t help but care for him.
In the cast and musical director Michael Tyack’s hands Harding’s simple, sometimes prosaic but winsome lyrics and understated melodies feel comfortable and natural. Of course these people sing, and of course when they sing their words are direct and yearning; unless they are singing in a cabaret within the play, they sing when they can no longer speak. Rennie understands that essential motivation behind each song, and coaxes a sense of inevitability from each number that’s also conspiratorial; it’s like we’re being let in on a secret. Even Lana’s monologue in a public toilet block – an elegy to a lost friend – is treated this way, with deep respect for usually unspoken secrets and glimpses of vulnerability. More casual scenes sparkle with the kind of playful, knowing dialogue shared between close friends, and the relationships onstage feel remarkably real.
Often revivals of musicals don’t have answers to these fundamental questions: Why do this musical now? What is it about this time and place that makes this musical the right choice? What does the show have left to tell us? But this show not only answers these questions, it’s so clear in its purpose as a piece of theatre that you never have to ask them in the first place. While Only Heaven Knows might be gently dated in its storytelling approach (it was written during the AIDS crisis to find a promise of a better future from within the past), it seems fresh here.
It’s an ode to the often battered and repressed, but never fully destroyed, spirit of Kings Cross and the queer Sydney community, a reminder that times and places change and change over again, that freedoms are lost and won and lost and won over again. Only Heaven Knows brings just a seed of hope that we, and our city, will survive these lockout laws, this legal block on equal marriage, this media and governmental attack against queer people, transgender people, against women.
It’s a reminder that if you have a community to support you – a ‘gay family’, a group of friends, familiar faces that share your values at the pub – then even the most austere and punishing times are navigable, survivable. You’ll probably cry while you’re watching Only Heaven Knows, but that’s okay. You won’t be alone.