The extent to which you enjoy Taboo will most likely determined by your age and whether you are only vaguely aware of Boy George as a camp, portly man in a big hat, most famous for getting arrested, or if he is someone eternally seared into your memory as a mesmerising, angel-voiced enigma whose appearance in the British music mainstream had genuinely seismic effects.
While the production itself still contains much to charm those in the former category – it’s a likeable enough musical in its own right – for those who fondly remember Thursday evenings kneeling in front of the telly glued to Top of the Pops and tightly gripping your copy of Smash Hits while angrily insisting to your bewildered parents that, yes, that really is a boy, this is a nostalgia fest of the highest order, and you won’t leave disappointed.
This is an updated production (there are new songs by Boy George, and the book by Mark Davies Markham has been tweaked, including a couple of sly digs at George’s brush with the law), but it’s the decision to create a site-specific staging that really makes it work.
The dark and slightly cramped environs of the Brixton Club House return the story to its origins: this music grew out of squats and nightclubs, and it feels at home in the space, the surroundings creating a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is compelling. With pacey but controlled direction by Christopher Renshaw, everything takes place right in front of you, and though sometimes this means that the stage feels crowded, it also means there is nowhere to hide: fittingly, in a show that is about being fabulous but recognizes how fragile that carapace of self-determined glamour is, such proximity means that you can scrutinise the artifice up close: you can see the sweat beneath the glitter, the cracks in the overly made up faÃ§ades.
This makes some scenes work better than others – George’s descent into tabloid documented ‘drugs hell’ doesn’t bear close observation, whereas Marilyn’s doped up collapse can’t help but be shocking, simply because you have to instinctively recoil when a grown man falls down heavily inches from where you are sat.
The necessary sparseness of the main stage (which amounts to little more than a catwalk threading between the seating) is contrasted by the clever use of the rest of the room: actors lounge around the bar and against pillars, emerging from hidden panels in the wall, so you’re never quite sure where the action is coming from, giving the piece a nice unpredictability it wouldn’t otherwise have. Mike Nicholls’ costumes are suitably brash and striking, recreating some of the more famous looks of its stars but also charting the progression of the (made up) protagonists, their new lives sartorially signposted, whether by Billy’s bondage trousers and kilt combo or his mother’s power shoulders.
The plot itself is relatively humdrum: young man heads to the city to make a name for himself, falls in with questionable but colourful crowd, learns lessons about life, loss and love along the way. While created to give us an identifiable entrance into George’s world, Billy is fairly bland, and though Alistair Brammer and Niamh Perry give it their all as the central couple (Perry’s spiky vulnerability is particularly appealing), and the Shirley Valentine-like blossoming of Billy’s mother is movingly played by Sarah Ingram, there’s no getting round the fact that this fictional story is far less interesting than the real lives being played out around it.
Making his professional debut as George, Matthew Rowland perfectly captures the singer’s charm, and his relationship with a preening, jealous Marilyn (Adam Bailey) is a delight that I wish we’d seen more of. Owain Williams’ magnificently catty Steve Strange is also a joy, and Sam Buttery as Leigh Bowery is suitably over the top, though there is real pathos in his final scene, where he sits to be painted by Lucien Freud: recognition that for all his exaggerated excess, he was to find real immortality stripped naked at the hands of true genius. But it is Paul Baker, reprising the role of Philip Sallon, for which he won an Olivier, who is the bitchy, beating heart of the show, whether acidly flirting with the audience over canapÃ©s, or deadpan and dismissive of the antics of those around him – it’s worth seeing Taboo simply for him alone.
As a musical, the show is a victim of Culture Club’s success as much as George was: O’Dowd has furnished it with plenty of decent songs, but none reach the heights of the still-sublime Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?, or the insanely catchy Karma Chameleon – it’s a fair bet that if you leave the club humming a song, it won’t be one of the new ones. But rarely has a setting so overcome the limitations of the material: transforming what could be a run of the mill musical into a vibrant and exciting experience.