Nearly ten years on since its fabulous and successful debut in London’s West End, Boy George’s musical Taboo returns in spectacular form, re-imagined and reworked for the Brixton Club House.
Squeezed, almost perfectly, into this site-specific space, director Christopher Renshaw reassembles the majority of his original creative team and parades a delicious array of talent that draws you into the wonderful and freakish world of Taboo.
Back in the 80s during the birth of the New Romantics, the story revolves around a resplendent collection of forthright characters whose paths cross each other during this phenomenal decade with its superstardom highs and its decedent yet defunct pitfalls. We follow Billy (Alistair Brammer) as he runs from his Thatcherite family to join his girlfriend Kim (Niamh Perry) and her friend George O’Dowd (Matthew Rowland) in the seedy heights of a Soho squat. Adventures ensue as they dive into a world that is gender bent, club-tastic, art thrilled, bitchy camp, dressed up, drug fuelled and sexually charged. Mark Davies Markham’s book isn’t that ground breaking, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy kisses boy etc., etc., but what is clever about Taboo is how he manages to weave and interact the fictional characters with the non-fictional.
Using the true-life events of Boy George himself, the disasters of Marilyn, the epic, iconic creations of Leigh Bowery and the wicked acid tongued individual that is Phillip Sallon, Markham tells many detailed stories. With great comedy and ease Markham shows how truly wonderful the era was, whilst plumbing the touching depths behind the façade uncompromisingly.
As it did those years ago Boy George’s songs paint the picture and set the right tone when needed, balancing the pop/musical sound perfectly and squeezing every ounce of his BOY charm into each note and lyric. It was a joy to hear the army of freaks project every emotion into the many theatrical numbers, pinpointing and evoking an era gone but very much not forgotten. From the dance floor diva ‘Everything Taboo’ and the comedic, breezy ‘Guttersnipe’ to the honourable ‘Il Adore’ and ‘Pie In The Sky’ there is no denying the remarkable talents of la George.
The intimate, dark club setting of the Brixton Club House is perfect for Taboo. The various catwalks, stages and bar, all put to use, are very fitting and add to its texture, no matter where you are seated. From the premium cabaret seats to the theatre style, you are thrust deep inside the action, forced to turn and involve yourself with each moment. Most of the time this works and it was rather enjoyable having to find where the action was taking place, the director forcing you to choose your own camera angle. For the moments I could not see, the voyeur in me enjoyed overhearing conversations and being the fly on the wall. However, during some musical numbers I found the staging blocked and alienated the audience from the action, and the song therefore lost its impact. Admittedly working in such a space would always be a challenge but it felt a shame the space wasn’t used to its full potential.
The highlight of the evening was to see Paul Baker back in resplendent glory as Phillip Sallon. After winning the Olivier Award for the same role in 2003 Paul is in great form and expels the catty cutthroat remarks that make Sallon so delicious to watch and adore with great pleasure and ease. If there was ever a person born for this role then Paul is he.
The rest of the cast are strong and pound their way through this thunderous show. Sarah Ingram as Josie, the beaten down mother of Billy, manages to bring a new life and consistency to the character, instead of the stock mother figure. Ingram pulls in strong, raw emotion, bringing wonderful conviction throughout and has a belter of a voice, especially clear in the new song addition – No Need To Work So Hard. Niamh Perry, who you may remember form BBC 1’s I’d Do Anything, hits the character Kim perfectly with her high beautiful toned vocal that sweeps and soars all over the score. Michael Matus is disgustingly delicious as Petal, the peddling transvestite drug dealer and Alistair Brammer play’s Billy to the letter with perfect voice and body.
Sam Buttery, from The Voice fame, marks his professional debut as the defiant and legendary Leigh Bowery. Fitting very well into the role, Buttery looks the part in all of Bowery’s colourful creations and works hard at portraying such an iconic figure, but I feel he misses the mark. Leigh was such a complex character, almost a mythical creature that lurked and draped across the 80’s scene. Throughout Taboo Leigh’s story unfolds and we get an insight into this enigmatic fiend, right through to his untimely death from AIDs. A tall order indeed and although Buttery sings his heart out and cavorts from blue baboon to mirrorball madness, he barely scratches the surface of what truly made Bowery tick and missed the point. Big kudos must go to Katie Kerr for her amazing and spot on portrayal of Big Sue. Kerr played Bowery’s backbone and constant supporter with perfection; her subtlety is scarily close to the real thing and with her powerhouse voice, which melts you into a musical euphoria, she is simply stunning.
As with Buttery, I felt a similar disappointment with Adam Bailey’s portrayal of Marilyn and newcomer Matthew Rowland as Boy George. Again both work hard in each role, hitting every mark, note and rehearsed move, delivering well what is on paper but that, unfortunately, is where it ends. Marilyn is hugely feisty and with that brings some fantastic comedy to the story, which Bailey misses and the love hate relationship he has with George doesn’t penetrate past the surface and passes fleetingly. Matthew Rowland is suited to the role of George and is reminiscent of the Karma Chameleon legend - he is very enjoyable to watch and as the show progresses Rowland seems to relax. However, I still felt there was some depth lacking in his characterisation; we miss the development of George and as we arrive at the resolution of the story it seems too much happily ever after instead of the bitter sweet aftermath, which would have made for a far more successful and truthful ending.
With that said Taboo is a whirling, swirling, laughing, screaming, tumbling queen of a show, with every moment you would expect from a modernistic musical. I’m so glad it’s been given new life and placed with great care over in Brixton. It’s worth a visit or three, if you can manage, a fantastic night out to either relive those times, celebrate the celebration or bask in the glorious, unseemly culture that legends have left for you to inhale. To quote Sallon: Gimmie a freak, any day of the week!