I was fortunate enough to catch Frances Barber's Billie Trix in the original production of Closer to Heaven at the Arts Theatre, London nearly 20 years ago. The production received mixed reviews at the time and its later incarnations, especially in the slightly grubby environment of The Union in 2015, certainly worked better. But Barber's performance as Billie stood out and left me wanting to know more about her story. Who was Billie?
Fast forward nearly 20 years and Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing, Coronation Street) and The Pet Shop Boys have collaborated again to address that question. The answer? Icon, rock star, screen goddess and drug addict, of course.
This one-woman show made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year to rave reviews. Based on Barber's Leicester Square performance, it's clear to see why. Jonathan Harvey's laugh out loud funny, acerbic script intricately and cleverly weaves the threads of Billie's past with comedic echoes of Victoria Wood. Harvey has brought the writing bang up to date – kudos for the Madonna references – and The Pet Shop Boys' music fits with it hand in glove.
But it is Barber herself who utterly brings Billie to life. Her performance is a genuine tour de force and a masterclass in story-telling. Switching from anger to vulnerability, from nonchalance to pity, the audience is treated to a portrayal of a woman whose larger than life existence masks her childhood insecurities. I was gripped from start to finish and would happily have sat through another hour. I only wish that we had been given the chance to afford the performance a standing ovation.
The show is brash and bold but then so is Billie Trix.
And the show is brilliant but then so is Frances Barber.