Only Heaven Knows

Discover the hidden life of Sydney's Kings Cross in this powerful, compelling and at times quite dark musical.
Only Heaven Knows

This powerful, compelling and at times quite dark musical tells the hidden stories of gay men in Sydney in the 1940s and ’50s. Only Heaven Knows premiered in 1988, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and Alex Harding’s script is crisp, at times deliciously wicked and witty, at others poignant and extremely moving. 

The musical follows Tim, a young man who aims to be a playwright and who discovers his sexuality and own community when he moves to the brash, bold lights of Kings Cross from Melbourne. The first half of the show is set in 1944. Tim and his friends suffer oppression – sometimes being beaten up and/or imprisoned for being gay – but there is a great sense of community and support in their lives. The second half is set in 1956 – the repressive Menzies era, when everything changed.

The central story of the show is the love between Tim (Ben Hall) and the warm hearted Cliff (Tim Draxl) an ex-soldier turned window dresser. In Act 2, 1956 Kings Cross is a hollow replica of its old self, although Arthur Stace’s ‘Eternity’ message is still around. Tim and Cliff are living together, but under the public façade of being cousins, to reduce the risk of scandal. Everywhere the atmosphere is furtive and everyone is nervous.

The fine direction by Shaun Rennie is loving yet quietly understated, and deftly balances the personal with the political. Brian Thompson’s elegant, minimalist set is deceptively simple and consists of four multi-level split platforms of what appears to be marble, and a gold/silver (depending on the lighting) curtain. Ellen Simpson’s choreography is splendid, perfectly showbiz and in the style of the era. Michael Tyack on piano, hidden behind the set, provides excellent musical accompaniment and the cast deliver the songs with gusto and panache. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting is fluid and atmospheric.

Tim is delightfully played by Ben Hall – young, fresh faced and in excellent voice. He perhaps a little nervously, weak and unsure, but soon grew into the role superbly. As the musical unfolds we follow Tim’s journey from an innocent, enthusiastic teenager through to a young man seizing the chance to create a life for himself.

As Cliff, the suave, chiselled Tim Draxl is terrific in a heartfelt , passionate performance that reveals genuine emotion and vulnerability. His performance of moving, eponymous number towards the end of the show brings the house down. Together, Hall and Draxl work to make Cliff and Tim's last scene together a heartbreaking one.  

Hayden Tee shines in her doubled roles. She gives a scene-stealing performance as the ghost of Lea Sonia, a female impersonator from the Tivoli circuit who was violently murdered in 1943, and who here acts as narrator, introducing us to the brash, colourful world of the Cross. She illustrates how much Sydney has changed over the years (some contemporary references have been added into the script) and appears in spectacular costumes – two of which are based on Sydney icons. Tee also plays Lana (real name Geoffrey, which he hates), the most colourful and audacious member of the gang, who has nothing but love and concern for his friends.

One of the highlights of the musical, which is extremely moving, is Lana’s monologue in Act 1, delivered to the ashes of ‘Georgette,’ a good friend who has recently passed away. Lana decides to scatter the ashes in a public toilet block in Hyde Park in memory of the many nights he and ‘Georgette’ spent there having sex with strangers. It is delivered tenderly and with great sadness and dignity.

Guinea, Tim’s landlady, a nightclub singer and single woman, is looked down upon because of her status. Blazey Best however gives a show-stopping, sultry, glamourous performance in the role. Her sizzling Blues number, ‘Ain’t It a Shame’ in Act 1, has the audience eating out of her hand.

We also meet Cliff's best friend Alan, brilliantly portrayed by the darkly handsome Matthew Backer, who gives a sensitive, finely nuanced performance of incredible range. Very charming and funny in Act 1, this changes in Act 2 as he desperately seeks to deal with significant shame and self-loathing. The play’s darkest, most shocking and disturbing scenes are in Act2 as Alan tries to deny his real self and rid himself of homosexual feelings. 

At the centre of Only Heaven Knows is a traditional gay romance which also now stands as a call for equality. Harding’s play, celebrating radical difference, also lets characters discuss casual sex in a playful, frank and authentic way which differentiates it from other gay dramas set in the same era.

This powerful, thought provoking and very moving production informs Sydney audiences of their history. It’s also a powerful statement about acceptance and marriage equality. 

4 stars out of 5

Only Heaven Knows
Music, Book, Lyrics: Alex Harding
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Mathew Backer, Blazey Best, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall, Hayden Tee
Running time allow 2 hrs 45 mins (roughly) including one interval

The Hayes Theatre, Potts Point  
26 May – 1 July 2017

Lynne Lancaster

Monday 5 June, 2017

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.