Mad about the Boy
Charles Spencer reviews Taboo at The Venue
THESE are testing times for the British musical. The closure of Cats and Starlight Express not only marks the end of an era but highlights the fact that lamentably little fresh talent has followed in Andrew Lloyd Webber's wake.
More seriously still, the musical seems mired in the past. Why has Britain's strength as a producer of great pop and rock music had so little impact on tune-and-toe shows? And why are most new musicals in the West End aimed so squarely at middle-brow, middle-aged audiences?
Last year, the Pet Shop Boys tried to break the mould and came a cropper with the tacky, charmless Closer to Heaven. After that, I didn't hold out much hope for Boy George's Taboo, a nostalgic evocation of the New Romantic movement that briefly glittered in the Eighties, the decade that taste forgot.
In fact, Taboo is a genuine breakthrough, and, despite its flaws, deserves to succeed. Unlike Closer to Heaven, the show has heart as well as attitude, and, though Mark Davies's book is riddled with cliches, Boy George's music and lyrics are terrific, blessed with melody, wit and a yearning vulnerability.
The action is set in the flamboyant London club scene in which now largely forgotten characters, such as Steve Strange, Leigh Bowery, the micro-pop star Marilyn and Boy George briefly flourished. It was a world of narcissism and camp bitchery, strongly influenced by what David Bowie had been doing 10 years earlier, soundtracked by the now dated music of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and, of course, Boy George himself.
The producers have rightly realised that such a clique is unlikely to appeal to a wide audience, so, against the gay and decadent background of the clubbers, they have inserted a traditional boy-meets-girl story of cheesy predictability. The fresh-faced teenage hero Billy (Luke Evans) abandons dreary Bromley, determined to become a "face" on the London scene, and falls for Kim (Dianne Pilkington) who, beneath her goth warpaint, turns out to be a devastatingly pretty, touchingly vulnerable virgin. Needless to say, the course of true love doesn't run smooth.
It's corny, but it is also affecting, largely thanks to Boy George's score, which strikes me as the freshest, most promising debut in British musical theatre since Rice and Lloyd Webber came up with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Great tunes with strong hooks abound, ranging from power pop to deliciously maudlin teen ballads, and, though George reprises a couple of his biggest hits, the rest of the material is new.
Christopher Renshaw's production, in this atmospheric new venue in the crypt of a Catholic church, neatly combines divine decadence and a sense of the cruel transience of fame with the surprisingly old-fashioned moral you should be nice to your mum and true to your girl.
The excellent Euan Morton looks and sounds eerily like the young Boy George, and this gilded butterfly's decline into a heroin habit is genuinely distressing. Evans and Pilkington milk maximum pathos from the love interest and sing superbly, while Gemma Crave gets maximum value from some ballsy power ballads as Billy's mum.
Among the support, I particularly liked Matt Lucas as the appalling Bowery, who mercifully spares us his character's notorious on-stage enemas as he camps his way through the hilarious Brecht-Weillish anthem Ich Bin Kunst; Mark McGee as the engagingly absurd Marilyn; Drew Jaymson as a hilariously Welsh Steve Strange, and Paul Baker as the good-natured club organiser Philip Sallon.
The Boy done good.
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© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.