By Chris Bartlett
Encapsulating the essence of a whole decade has proved beyond the reach of most modern musicals, the best succeeding by tapping into distinct movements to pierce the nostalgic fug. By following this second path, Boy George's eighties musical manages to sidestep the pitfalls to stand on its own.
The George O'Dowd story has enough incident for two musicals. Surprising, then, that it takes a backseat to the story of the groups that conjoined in the early eighties Soho club scene to form the new romantics. This proves to be its making. Director Christopher Renshaw's sure-handed depiction of those seedily glamorous fleshpots rings true thanks to Tim Goodchild's design and this new venue's pokey charm. Plus it is tremendous fun.
The story is told through the eyes of the fresh-faced Billy – a strong Luke Evans – who swaps his working-class roots for the bright lights of the city. Here Taboo steers perilously close to the Pet Shop Boys' Closer to Heaven. But while Jonathan Harvey's rendering ascribed assiduously to the big book of musical theatre conventions, Mark Davies' book draws on a richer seam of characterisation, helped immeasurably by its source materials.
Paul Baker holds things together as club owner Philip Sallon, whose acerbic wit pricks the seriousness, while Matt Lucas visibly grows into the grandstanding role of designer Leigh Bowery, given full reign by Mike Nicholls' outrageous costumes.
A smattering of Culture Club hits are used without muscling out Boy George's fine, live backed original songs, which range from the Jim Steinman-lite rock of Safe in the City to the pure pop of Stranger in This World and Pie in the Sky, beautifully sung by Euan Morton's uncanny George.
The only odd note is struck at the end, with George's redemptive trip to Bangladesh and the infectious Bow Down Mister providing an uplifting climax that follows inexplicably from his lowest point. But it matters little. And in keeping with the spirit of the age, taken at face value this is breezily enjoyable stuff that, importantly, should bear up to repeat viewings.
© The Stage Newspaper Ltd