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telegraph 3 jul 2002

Boy George's trash glitters brightest

Charles Spencer reviews Taboo at The Venue, Leicester Square

Who would have thought that the waspishly fey Boy George would get the better of such heavyweight showbiz hitters as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ben Elton, the rock group Queen and a flying car?
Taboo: the best new musical
Yet, of all the new musicals to have opened so far this year, Taboo, a gaudy, trashy celebration of the New Romantic movement of the 1980s, strikes me as easily the best. In comparison, the far more expensive and ostensibly ambitious Bombay Dreams, We Will Rock You and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seem like lumbering behemoths.
Taboo, which has now been running for six months in a sweaty cellar just off Leicester Square, gets by on sheer charm and cheek, plus a terrific collection of new songs by Boy George, which range from showbiz glitz to aching, wallowy romance. Great tune follows great tune, the lyrics are often witty, and the show creates a genuine buzz among a predominantly youthful audience. Now Mark Davies's book, which sets a boy-meets-girl romance against the gay and decadent background of the New Romantics, has been sharpened up, and the Aussie comedian Mark Little, best known as Joe Mangel in Neighbours, has joined the cast to play Leigh Bowery.
The book remains the weakest aspect of the show, and the central story of a young kid from Bromley intent on finding fame in the big city is too often trite. But the triangular relationship between feckless Billy, his Goth girlfriend Kim and Boy George (a character in his own musical) has now been tightened and darkened, with Billy playing both ways to advance his career as a photographer, and causing no end of grief.
The dialogue is often genuinely funny, yet what struck me most on a second viewing is the piece's darker side. The play devastatingly nails both the craven narcissism of youth and the transience of fame, hauntingly caught in the superb song Out of Fashion, sung by the washed up Steve Strange, Marilyn and Boy George, by now a hopeless junkie.
Mark Little is too amiable to be playing Bowery, the Australian designer and performance artist whose bloated body was immortalised in a series of paintings by Lucian Freud. He misses the whiff of sulphur that Matt Lucas brought to the role, though his death is genuinely poignant, casting a shadow over the play's celebration of gilded youth.
There is strong acting and fine singing from Luke Evans and Dianne Pilkington as the heterosexual love interest, and from Lyn Paul as Billy's mum. Drew Jaymson as Steve Strange and Mark McGee as Marilyn turn in neat cameos. But the star of the evening remains Euan Morton with his sharp, eerily persuasive impersonation of Boy George. It's a performance that doesn't beg for love - George often behaves disgracefully - yet somehow commands great affection. Hats off to Boy George for creating such a cracking musical in which he has had the courage to reveal himself, warts and all.
* Tickets: 0870 899 3335
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