Jonathan Harvey with songs by the Pet Shop Boys
Cahoots Theatre Company
Leicester Square Theatre
In 2001, Frances Barber created the character of the former self-styled rock icon and actress Billie Trix in Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys' musical Closer to Heaven (recently revived at Above the Stag Theatre). Now she is back in this new work (first seen last year on the Edinburgh Fringe), a solo piece for which Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have written some new songs.
Subtitled “The Billie Trix Story”, it presents a remarkable (if not entirely reliable) history told in an outrageously lurid and very funny monologue that takes us from bomb-battered Berlin to the present day in the “community centre” where she says she is performing.
Billie never got on well with her actress mother, whom she claims worked with the (not yet formed) Berliner Ensemble and in 1941 was to be the first to play Mother Courage but sadly in rehearsals ran herself over with her own cart ruining her career. In her teens, Hildegard (as she was then known) fled Berlin, she says naked, to embark for the New Worlds and a life of stardom fuelled by drugs and whisky. She is still knocking them back as she scabrously recounts it, dropping names on the way. From Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger to the Dalai Lama, she’s met them.
Director Josh Seymour and designer Lee Newby make it in-yer-face and full volume. Jean Paul Sartre may have told her, “you are so pretentious,” but Billie declares, “I am music” and tells us even her clitoris is shaped like a clef sign.
Yet even the life of a disco diva has its downs: for a year she lived in a Soho Square phone box being saved from starvation by Damien Hirst who once a week took her to eat at Quaglino’s. This is an artiste who inspired other artists including Jackson Pollock and Andy (those soup cans were her idea, it was he who said she needed a new name). She told Tracy Emin to “Make that bed!” Madonna copied her eye patch and still dogs her steps.
On the boat to the New World, Billie did it the first time with cabin boy Otto, a youth with shredded-wheat hair and a walnut whip for a penis with whom she caught up later when he too had a new name. Now rich, he took her to his Tower and made a grab for her pussy: look where he is now!
Musik is a substance-fuelled tirade that Barber spits out. You can’t resist its bombardment. Deliberate impropriety can be very unfunny but in these hands it’s hilarious. Delivered with an arrogance that hides insecurity, it’s touching too at the same time.
Behind the performer, there is a video backdrop of images that provide support and their own comment, from the seriousness of blitzed Berlin to the Vietnam-inspired image for “Run, Girl, Run” to a joyfully comic parade of soup cans that beats Heinz 57 varieties as she sings “Soup” while Billie’s head replaces that of celebrities in a multiple images. With other new numbers—“Ich Bin Musik” with its disco beat and “For Every Moment“ (each reflecting the era they are placed in) plus a reprise of ”Friendly Fire” from the original show—it’s a Pet Shop Boys fest too.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton