We first met Billie Trix back in 2001 at the Arts Theatre, London, where as nightclub host / singer/ predator/ libertine she lit up the night like fireworks in Closer To Heaven. Well, you can’t get much closer to heaven than witnessing her return to the stage – or this “shitty little circus tent” as she likes to refer to the (wonderful) Bijou venue in George Street – in her new one-person invective-with-songs Musik, a cabaret written by Jonathan Harvey with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – aka Pet Shop Boys.
“’Tis I – ’tis me – ’tis she” heckled Billie as she introduced herself at the start of Closer To Heaven. In fact, it was Frances Barber who created Billie back then and it’s Frances Barber still, 18 years later, who, in all honesty, has seriously upped the Wow! factor multiple notches along with a massively increased decibel count. At the recent revival of Closer to Heaven, at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, I asked Tennant if it was always the intention to use Barber again in the prequel-sequel-newquel, the latest vehicle for the indomitable Billie Trix. With the slightest waft of an agreeing head, a self-effacing almost-smile and a knowing twinkle in his aesthetically-discerning eye he replied, simply, “Oh, yes”. Frances Barber is Billie Trix; and it may just be possible that Billie Trix is Frances Barber.
Trix takes us on a high-speed, muscle-car journey through the supra-colourful life-changing events of her star-spangled history with a delivery like that of a shock-jock on Red Bull laced with special K. We meet Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger and Jackson Pollack and a guy with shredded-wheat hair who is rich and opinionated and wants to grab her by the pussy. We learn about her film career spawned by the provocatively iconoclastic “Masturbation of Race” (she played Norway: don’t mention the fjords). She reels off her hit songs and divulges intimate information about the music biz; and, naturally, she recounts her experiences as a narcotic sponge who has sampled every high from poppers through uppers to the Trix-mix of you-name-it-I’ve-done-them-all: together. Yes, Trix/Barber is loud and brash and uncompromising and is the kind of aunt you love hearing apocryphal stories about but for god’s sake keep her away from the wedding.
Whilst Barber’s performance is akin to a weather-bomb visiting the sedate streets of Edinburgh’s New Town she has a wonderful script to work with. Writer Jonathan Harvey puts the full range of his talents on display as he niggles and chortles and blusters and barges his way through a life he has created and which he endows with the flamboyant panache that he knows will be done full justice by the performer he is writing for. There’s a lot of wit here, there’s much humour, we have subtlety and gusto, we have ridicule and contempt and ultimately we have brutality and, well, tenderness – almost. It’s a powerfully theatrical piece designed to smack you in the gob and boy, does Harvey have the perfect gob-smacker in Barber.
Tennant and Lowe’s songs are woven cleverly into the narrative and Barber does them sparkling justice throughout the piece. They borrow the Billie Trix theme song – “Friendly Fire” – from the original show and add five others which use the PSB trademark disco element in some – the pulsating “Ich Bin Musik” and the closing number “For Every Moment”- combined with that other, rarely credited, PSB trademark – the haunting melody with Tennant’s highly personal lyrics as in “Run, Girl, Run”. Barber doesn’t hold back in any of these, bestriding the stage like a demented dervish, shooting accusing glances at her audience, daring us not to get involved. Script, music and Barber combined are like an unstoppable runaway train crushing all in its wake, a kind of tour-de-force-majeure.
There is, as always, much to be admired and liked at EdFringe this year. But Musik is a one-off, a not-be-missed totally immersing experience by one of the great stage performers of our time, with a punchy in-yer-face script and songs from two of the most enduring songwriters of their generation.
Blown away just doesn’t cover it.
Review by Peter Yates
MUSIK is a 50-minute, one-woman show with an outrageous book by Jonathan Harvey and six songs by Tennant and Lowe including four new ones written for this show. It stars multi-award-winning actress Frances Barber reprising her role as Billie Trix from the 2001 musical, ‘Closer to Heaven’.
Written by Jonathan Harvey
& Pet Shop Boys
Songs by Pet Shop Boys
Starring Frances Barber
Cahoots Theatre Company
Assembly Rooms (Bijou venue)
54 George Street,
Edinburgh, EH2 2LR
Monday 5 August – Saturday 24 August, 2019
Leicester Square Theatre
6 Leicester Place
London WC2H 7BX
Tuesday 3 September at 7pm
Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 September at 9pm