Friday, 21 September 2012

Theatre review: Taboo

A show named after a seedy club gets revived in a site-specific production at a not-entirely-salubrious-looking club in Brixton. Original director Christopher Renshaw, bringing with him an original cast member (Paul Baker as Philip Sallon,) returns to Boy George's autobiographical musical Taboo. It's the early 1980s and straight(ish) aspiring photographer Billy (Alistair Brammer) moves out of his parents' home and in with his Siouxsie-esque girlfriend Kim (Niamh Perry.) The "landlady" is Sallon, and the other residents include a cross-dressing wannabe poet - Boy George (Matthew Rowland.) Billy is our eyes through which to relive a culture that fought against the austerity of a recession under Thatcher by creating flamboyant looks on a shoestring. The fictional Billy's story runs parallel with George's real history with drugs but the show is largely about bringing to the stage some of the iconic figures of the scene.

The action takes place on a couple of stages linked by catwalks that snake around the room, as well as occasionally on and around the bar. With the uncomfortable seats facing the main part of the stage, I could have done with fewer scenes being set on the catwalk behind us (we were seated in the audience section nearest to the entrance door) as we had to do a lot of turning around. But that aside I felt the look of the piece was well done; not just in the staging but also of course in Mike Nicholls' costumes and Christine Bateman's makeup designs which are clearly going to play a major role among characters who put so much of their personality into their appearance.

Mark Davies Markham's book is rather painfully expositional at first but settles down a bit after a while - either that or I stopped noticing. In any case it's strengths are largely in the bitchy comic dialogue and the audience interaction, of which there is a fair bit - largely coming from Baker, viciously ad-libbing as Sallon and crossing all kinds of lines. I'd try and give an idea of where to sit if you're phobic of such things but I'm not sure there's anywhere in the small auditorium where you'd be entirely safe. Not that it's anything too unpleasant, and only one person actually ended up getting dragged up (kinda literally) onstage. Of course with a musical it's the music that's important and I was pleasantly surprised - most musicals tend to have a few showstoppers and their fair share of filler but I found Taboo to be pretty consistently stacked with enjoyable tunes, with a nice bit of variety to them as well - for the second night in a row I may need to do a bit of searching online for songs to download.

What's also impressive from someone without a musical theatre background is the way the songs give almost everyone in the cast a chance to shine vocally, and the production has certainly assembled a strong collection of voices. The studly (albeit a bit overdressed if you ask me) Brammer as Billy seemed a bit underpowered at first but really came into his own as the show went on, and newcomer Rowland is also strong, while Baker gets to show another side to the purveyor of put-downs in "Petrified." It's a very strong show for the women as well, with Perry in strong voice as the mouthy but inexperienced Kim, Sarah Ingram fantastically moving as Billy's put-upon mother Josie, and Katie Kerr bringing the house down with Big Sue's song of mourning for her best friend Leigh Bowery, "Il Adore."

The show is packed with well-known figures of the scene, like Steve Strange (Owain Williams) whose early success and quick fall into obscurity fails to tip George off to the fact that a life as the most fashionable person has an inevitable expiration date; and Marilyn (Adam Bailey) whom, of course, nobody can quite find the energy to care about. The figure most associated with Taboo (and the club it's named after) is Leigh Bowery, the grotesque performance artist and designer whom Sam Buttery pitches somewhere between Matt Lucas (who was in fact one of the actors to play Bowery during the original run) and Peter Kaye as Geraldine. The role is actually little more than a cameo but then again he must need a lot of time in between scenes to change outfits and makeup, and besides the character's too big to appear too often without overwhelming the story, from his opening appearance enthroned on a toilet to his final one, posing naked for Lucien Freud shortly before his AIDS-related death. (I would like to point out that while I did publicly express a wish to see a The Voice contestant disrobe on stage, I was very clear about which one I meant. So well done, the universe, for promptness in adhering to my commands, but nul points for accuracy.)

When I booked this I thought I'd take Vanessa with me, and was surprised when she said she wasn't interested (I still think she would have absolutely loved it.) Instead my friend Phill made his first trip with me and he really enjoyed the show and laughed a lot, especially in the lighter first act (despite Baker picking on him quite regularly, and at one point Kerr practically dangling her upper protuberances into his face.) For my part I expected this to be a fun evening and it lived up to my expectations on that front, but I was also impressed with how unexpectedly well this works as a traditional piece of musical theatre.

Taboo by Boy George, Mark Davies Markham, Christopher Renshaw, Kevan Frost, Richie Stevens and John Themis is booking until the 23rd of December at Brixton Clubhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.


  1. Sam Buttery's upper protuberances also left an inpression!!

    1. Well I was trying to be polite but yes, that image is rather seared on my eyeballs. The nipples were so saucer-like I was half-expecting Daleks to fly out of them.