Review by Andrew Culjak
The Blitz Kids, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Steve Strange and Visage, Duran Duran, Bow Wow Wow, Missing Persons: Do any of these bands strike a chord with you?
The New Romantics. The New Romantics?? What the He... are the new Romantics? More on that later on.
I was not particularly keen on seeing this new musical, which previewed on 11 January this year. Julie, my wife, and I were standing in Leicester Square Center in front of the 1/2 price ticket booth trying to decide what we were going to see on a clear, crisp October afternoon. I was adamant - I wanted to see "Vincent in Brixton" (review to come at a later date); and Julie, well, it seemed there was just too much for her to choose from. As she stood in line for the matinee tickets waiting to purchase seats for my choice of viewing pleasure, I scurried back and forth from the notice board of that day's selections to the line. I didn't even mention "TABOO" because I wasn't interested in a retrospective of Boy George songs. I didn't like Culture Club's music back in the 80's when I still considered myself rebellious and somewhat avant garde (yeah, right).
Julie had mentioned before we ever left for London that she wanted to see this show and I was now desperately trying to avoid bringing it up hoping beyond hope that it had been forgotten. After bringing up almost anything else I thought we might both be interested in (Forget "My Fair Lady", You'd have to shoot me and drag my dead carcass to the "Lion King" although I'm glad Disney did something slightly innovative for once, and I've slagged "Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang", but the poster which was very Cirque Du Soliel in style piqued my interest - but not quite enough) and getting noncommittal shrugs I finally capitulated and mentioned "TABOO". The smile I got was enough to make seeing the show worthwhile and, luckily, the show itself turned out to be the icing on the cake.
That evening after a desert of Hagen Daas ice cream sundaes, we walked to the theater. It was a small 300-seat establishment that resembled, after walking down a flight of stairs from the street, more of a nightclub setting than a theater. This was both relevant and appropriate. Relevant because the remodeled Venue was once a famous night club that the actual people depicted in the show once hung out and appropriate because much of the show was done in a semi-Cabaret style with actors cavorting with audience members and ad-libbing through portions of the show.
Before I go any further, If you think crossing dressing is disgusting and intolerable, blatant homosexuality (men kissing men) and mincing should be outlawed or driven from society, if in the eighties you drove around in a pickup truck, Camaro or other muscle car hurtling empty beer bottles or rocks at those on the fringes of society. This show is probably not for you.
Having said that, on with the show.
Although not knowing who the respective characters actually are or the parts they played in real life doesn't hinder one's enjoyment of the show, it certainly helps to enjoy it more if you have some background information. The program is full of information on Boy George, Leigh (pronounced Lee) Bowery, Steve Strange, and Phillip Sallon.
Before the show opens there are two televisions with flashbacks from the time period. While your attention is glued to the TV or talking amongst your companions, minor characters come out to stop by the working bar at the side of the stage, stand on the stage and stare out at the audience, and generally walking around amusing themselves. It is one of those moments where you want to watch what's going on, but not too directly for fear you may attract their attention and in doing so become part of the minor prologue. This unspoken prologue is the zenith of the punk and new wave era. Characters in leather, piercings, odd hairdos, mismatched plaid pants and jumpers, walk around sneering, picking their noses and flinging the end product somewhere (Luckily no one in the audience was hit), sitting around looking bored and generally whatever else strikes their fancy.
The lights go down the minions depart the stage and audience and the character of Philip Sallow appears, spot lit in the audience and in a wedding dress and shouts, "Always the Bridegroom never a Bride" before belting the show's first tune. Sallow was one of the biggest club entrepreneurs in the London of 1980's and here the character plays the part of MC for the show.
As a synopsis: TABOO takes place in the decade of the New Romantics or Nu-Ro which sprung up as a revolt against the angst of Punk and New Wave. They were called the New Romantics because these club goers had no interest in political or social issues, combined the coolest of punk fashion with the most outlandish of Glam Rock fashion to create what was perceived by them as the ultimate in beauty, sophistication and especially the Avant Garde, Above all Nu-Ro's were concerned with Style, Fashion, Beauty and having a good time to the point of hedonism. If Boy George is the show's sun around which all other characters gravitate, it's closest orbiting planet would be the character of Billy, an amalgam of all the men George desired and/or loved. Billy leaves home after a fight with his father at the beginning of the show to seek his fortune in London as a photographer and slowly sinks into the quagmire of the underground scene. He seems most definitively straight from the outset and upon moving to London where he quickly develops affection for the play's leading female outcast, but is just as quickly mystified and attracted to the young Boy George. The show proceeds to follow Boy George's rise to fame and Billy's ride on his coattails, George's decent into drugs, and his rise from the ashes of near death and obscurity while intermittently allowing the audience to witness the results on those closest to him.
The show's orchestration was solid, as were the vocal arrangements and dancing numbers. Lavish enough to be interesting and not garish enough to deflect the audience. Among the musical highlights for me were: A Broadway style number called freaks, both acoustic renditions (one solo by George and a quartet sung by George, Sallow, Billy and Steve Strange - this second rendition was blended with "Do you really Want to hurt me" to great advantage and success) of "Stranger in the World", and the Berlinesque Cabaret style of "Ich Bin Kunst" sung by the character Leigh Bowery.
With limited exceptions the cast was very strong vocally and personable. You ended up, if not liking, empathizing with the characters - especially the actor Euan Morton who plays a photo realistic Boy George who has hit on all the vocal characteristics of the Main Character and Luke Evans as Billy.
Ultimately, I think if you lived the 80's music scene you'll love this musical and if you didn't, the musical is still a great place to visit. Here are a couple of review excerpts from the local London Papers.
CAITLIN MORAN for THE TIMES says, "The casting is impeccable, the bitching is bewitching, and positively no one is underdressed."
CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Taboo is a genuine breakthrough, and, despite its flaws, deserves to succeed……..the show has heart as well as attitude….Boy George's music and lyrics are terrific, blessed with melody, wit and a yearning vulnerability."
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "It makes up in gaiety and tunefulness what it lacks in social analysis."
FIONA STURGES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The good news is that George has come up with some new songs, rather than trawling out the old ones, karaoke-style."
MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Enjoyable new musical … that is also surprisingly conventional."