A little over 15 years ago, West End theatre-goers would emerge from their shows to witness the edifying spectacle of the freaks moving in on Leicester Square. Taboo, the wildest club night in town, took place at the cheesy Maximus disco, a few doors up from the Empire, attracting all those suburban-kids-gone-wrong who made up the cream of the 1980s scene. It was showy and splashy, highly theatrical and as far from the naff, stuffy world of the West End show as it was possible to be. Quite what the Thursday-night Cats crowd made of the denizens of Taboo, we can only guess. That was probably the last time the real club underground had much contact with the West End - a clash of opposites. Now, however, a few brave souls are attempting a synthesis of stage and dancefloor in Taboo, the musical.
Before you run screaming for the hills, take comfort from the fact that many of the talents involved - Boy George, choreographer Les Child, costume designer Mike Nicholls - were among those who wore lampshades on their heads to get into the original Taboo, witnessed the glorious debauchery of the 1980s, and somehow survived to tell the tale. And what they have come up with, with a little help from writer Mark Davies Markham and seasoned musical director Christopher Renshaw, puts polysexual chaos into the format of a well-made show, with a boy-girl love story at the heart of the matter. "It could have been very cliquey and cool," says producer Adam Kenwright, "and we'd have run for a week. We want this to be seen by mums and dads, boyfriends, girlfriends, straights and gays. Everyone wants their work to be seen by as many people as possible. Boy George is no fool."
George, the man who turned club culthood into commercial success, is the creative linchpin of Taboo. As well as being a character in the show (played with uncanny accuracy by Euan Morton), he provided much of the material for the book and wrote the songs. "I had a meeting with Chris Renshaw a couple of years ago about working on a musical set in the 1980s club scene," says George. "I said, 'Yes. Now go away and come up with a story.' To be honest, I thought I'd never see him again."
But Renshaw came up with the goods, and Taboo was born during the course of a three-week workshop. Further refinements followed, and now the show is ready to open just round the corner from its historical setting, at the newly licensed Notre Dame Hall, itself the scene of a good deal of club chaos in the 1970s and 1980s. "It was very tempting to do Taboo in a big, conventional West End theatre," says Renshaw. "But the whole point is to recreate the real spirit of the times, and for that we needed a different sort of venue. So we'll have a rotting, decadent club atmosphere, with scenes taking place in the audience, action all around you. It won't be a straight musical."
That is just as well, seeing as the original Taboo crowd strained with every fibre of their beings to be weird and alternative. Leigh Bowery, Taboo host and ringmaster of the London freak show until his death in 1994, took fashion to places it never wanted to go. Bowery (played on stage by Shooting Stars/Rock Profile regular Matt Lucas) was talented, bitchy, ambitious, charming, self-loathing - a distillation of everything that was good and bad about Taboo.
George, who became a good friend of Bowery's, first met him in the early 1980s, "when he was hanging around with his friend Trojan, sporting a look they called Pakis from Outer Space. I thought they were a bit naff. I'd been painting my face blue years ago, darling! But I soon realised Leigh was taking things a lot further. He'd missed out on punk, he'd just missed the Blitz scene, so he knew that he was going to have to be extreme in order to make his mark. Well, he certainly did that!"
George gravitated towards Taboo after his first flush of success with Culture Club, and quickly became a regular. "Like everything, I saw it, wanted to be part of it, and dived in headfirst. There were a lot of people hanging around on the periphery of that scene watching, but I was up to my neck." Taboo restored George's underground credentials, but also accelerated his slide into heroin dependency. His friend Mark Vaultier, the notoriously sharp Taboo doorman ("Would you let yourself in?"), was a casualty of the scene, and died of a methadone overdose in 1986.
"There was a lot of self-destructive behaviour," says George. "It was all about extremes, outdoing each other. We tried every drug going, we wore the most bloody silly things. Leigh could be cruel - a lot of people hated him, but admired him too. The downside of Leigh was that he believed in what he wore, that it made him something special. I learned very early in the punk years that clothes are just clothes and that the people underneath them are just people. Leigh was incredibly talented in a lot of different ways - he designed his own clothes, he could act, he had a band - but he could be rather grand at times."
All this will be seen on stage in a story that starts in the squats around Warren Street. Billy (Luke Evans) is a good-looking suburban lad who comes to London looking for fame, but instead has his head turned by a fledgling Boy George. "Billy's a combination of Jon Moss [Culture Club drummer and George's erstwhile boyfriend] and Kirk Brandon and all those other straight boys I daren't name because I can't afford another lawsuit," says George. "He's looking for his own identity - not just sexual, but in every respect. That's what we were all doing - experimenting with identity in an extreme way."
While Billy and his girlfriend Kim provide a point of contact for the audience, it's the real-life characters who add the colour. George and Leigh Bowery are in there alongside Marilyn, Steve Strange and Philip Sallon, rival queens in a very competitive court. At a run-through of selected numbers from the show in December, Steve Strange held court with the press; Marilyn was conspicuous by his absence. "I sent a car for Marilyn," says George, "but he never got in it. Marilyn's a hard person to deal with. He's incredibly observant and comes up with a lot of good ideas. Marilyn's very intelligent. That's his problem."
The headiness of the Taboo scene must seem like ancient history to today's club generation, raised on personal freedoms and a cheap, reliable drug supply. The underground lives on, perhaps, in a few unknown venues, but has never again reached the critical mass that spawned Taboo and a few other clubs. Taboo the musical is a bit like Cabaret - a voyeuristic postcard of a bygone age, glamorised and sanitised, but still dirty enough to inspire jealous sighs from those who were not there.
"Things will never be like that again," says George. "One of the prices you pay for liberation and tolerance is that you sacrifice individuality. Gay clubs in Soho are totally homogeneous now. Kids are anti-authority in a pre-packaged, Eminem way. They have more information, but don't have that change-the-world attitude that we had. Taboo thrived in a period of right-wing politics, the Thatcher/Reagan years, and it's proof of a basic human need to have something to kick against. That's what made it such fun. It completely upped the ante and convinced us that we were somehow being terribly, terribly naughty."
Taboo previews at the Venue, London WC2 (0870 899 3335), from Friday.
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