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the observer 3 feb 2002

Where's the naughty Boy?

The Culture Club singer had wit, panache and a way with a tune. This musical has... a spangly jacket

David Benedict

Hands up all those who remember Out of the Blue? What, no one? That's possibly because it was one of those blink-and-you-missed-it musicals that opened and closed within what seemed like days. Why? Out of the Blue was the musical about Nagasaki. Honest. That show, if you'll pardon the expression, bombed because anyone wanting to see a musical didn't want it to be about Nagasaki, and anyone wanting to see a show about Nagasaki didn't want it to be a musical. Hey presto! - the show with no audience.
The producers of the Boy George musical Taboo aren't making that mistake. They're banking on a ready-made audience of survivors of Eighties club nights and all those who danced to 1983's top-selling single 'Karma Chameleon'. And then there are all those too young to have read the tabloid tell-alls and George's autobiography. They'll thrill to this boy's own drag-to-bitches story. Won't they?
Let's see. As Eltham's most famous export, Euan Morton is far more than a cardboard lookalike. He spookily captures George's combustible mix of innocence and derision and his fey yet strong singing uncannily echoes George's sneering but smiling voice. Likewise, Mark McGee manages a mean Marilyn, while Matt Lucas seizes all opportunities as the iconoclastic self-appointed fashion guru Leigh Bowery. If only we were watching Stars in Their Eyes...
What's laughingly known as the plot goes from Bromley to Buddhism via straight boy Billy (Luke Evans) who leaves suburbia with a camera and dreams, meets George and everyone goes from squatting to chart-topping, from hero-worship to heroin and back again. Every now and again, Mark Davies's threadbare script manages a one-liner - when a comely Buddhist hands him a vast necklace of flowers George coos 'ooh, a Judy Garland from Shirley Temple' - but the rest of the dialogue would disgrace a teen magazine photo-love story. I'm not asking for Chekhov but when Billy's father yells that his obsession with photography won't make him a success, Billy yells back: 'I will be one day, you see if I won't', which is the kind of antique faux cockney construction last heard in the buffet in Brief Encounter and I'm not talking about the eponymous gay bar on St Martin's Lane. And while we're on the subject, how gay is this show?
Well, apart from George and Marilyn announcing that they don't want to be seen as 'faggy nancy boys', the climax of the first act pivots on the idea that - horrors! - Billy might have had sex with a man. His mother is aghast, his girlfriend dumps him but, phew, Billy turns out to be straight. Pardon? A sense of adventure was the raison d'etre of the club scene and sexual experiment was the password.
Meantime, back at Davies's, er, script, the show's idea of exposition is to have actors rushing on with newspapers reading out headlines. A better director could make that look witty, but Christopher Renshaw can't handle it. One minute his actors are a plot device, seconds later they're characters with emotions we're supposed to care about. Not that there's anything to act. Each tiny scene is like a bad advert - location, idea, sales pitch and then on to the next - which means there's no real energy or cumulative rhythm so nothing develops. Characters just walk on, announce their feelings to one another and then sing about them.
Boy George has always had a sentimental but pleasing way with a tune. His music leans towards self-pity but there's absolutely nothing wrong with a good wallow from time to time and he and his three co-writers (and vocal arranger Martin Lowe) are at their best in a succession of touching ballads - well-scored for a four-piece band. The songs have an unplugged feel about them - a vast improvement on the overblown grandiose rock posturing of Notre Dame, or, indeed, Rent - and the score even rises to a passionate quartet of conflicting emotions for Steve Strange, Marilyn, George and Billy. More of that and they might have been cooking with gas.
In the similar - actually, worse - Jonathan Harvey/ Pet Shop Boys' debacle Closer to Heaven (than what?), whenever Peter Darling's dance numbers appeared you almost forgot what a train wreck you were witnessing. No such luck here. Choreographer Les Child puts a willing company through their paces, but he and Renshaw fatally fail to build any number that raises the temperature. Take the one where Billy is supposedly transformed from blokey snapper to cult photographer. The company just dance around him while he puts on a spangly jacket. Even the number in which the company all dance with different coloured telephones just isn't funny or camp enough. Sorry, guys, you're going to have to try a lot harder.
At the top of act two we finally arrive at Taboo, 'the club that everyone wants to be part of'. So how come it's like a school disco but with better lighting? Designer Tim Goodchild places almost all the key scenes on an inner stage which, disastrously, is several feet away from even the front row of the audience, so even though we're in a 329-seat ex-dance club we feel distanced from most of the action.
Which leaves you wondering who this is for? If you don't already know George, it's not good enough to make you fall for him; and if you already love him, you could buy one of his CDs, drinks and a takeaway for far less than the price of even the cheapest ticket of £25 (top whack is £35).
The opening night audience boasted such celebrities as songbird-turned-teenage-temptress Charlotte Church who appeared to be stepping out with H from the band formerly known as Steps, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. His Cats will prowl out in its fun-fur legwarmers for its final performance on 11 May, but he need not worry.
If Taboo overtakes Cats ' record 21-year run I'll eat my feet.

This article was downloaded from

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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