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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 7th February 2002

Taboo / From Love to Decay

The Spectator - 8th February 2002

Taboo, a new musical that's just opened off Leicester Square, is a mixed success. As a stand-alone piece of theatre it's pretty mediocre. The music and lyrics are by Boy George, the cross-dressing pop star, and they are of a piece with his handful of 80s hits: "I'm a, I'm a, I'm a, I'm a, I'm a chameleon..." The book by Mark Davies is even worse. The secondary characters are given some good one-liners, but the two leads are hopelessly one-dimensional. The plot is boilerplate boy-meets-girl and gives the impression of having been lifted straight out of Absolute Beginners, the disastrous Julian Temple musical that almost single-handedly destroyed the British film industry for 10 years.

Yet in spite of these shortcomings there's something almost irresistibly winsome about it. Taboo is set in the New Romantic West End club scene of the early 80s, a predominantly homosexual world that I came to know quite well as a teenager. Indeed, my only homosexual experience dates back to this time. I was emerging from the Camden Palace on New Year's Eve, 1981, when I spotted a beautiful blonde in the local kebab shop. I started chatting her up and, within a few minutes, we were playing tonsil hockey by the Space Invaders machine. I tried to persuade her to come back to my place but, alas, she had a pressing engagement. This may have been for the best. As she disappeared over the horizon in a black cab the owner of the kebab shop asked me if I was aware of the fact that I'd just been snogging a man. It turned out to be Boy Marilyn, an infamous drag queen of the period. At the time I was completely horrified--I'd been educated exclusively at state schools and was unaccustomed to getting off with boys--but now I'm rather proud of my encounter. This gorgeous female impersonator was my first--and, as it turned out, my last--celebrity conquest.

To my delight, Boy Marilyn makes an appearance in Taboo, as do a number of other familiar faces from that era. For instance, Phillip Salon of Mud Club fame crops up, as does Steve Strange, the notoriously bad-tempered doorman of the Camden Palace. Unfortunately, these people aren't played by themselves--too old and haggard, I expect--but they're brilliantly brought to life by various look-a-likes. Indeed, the resemblance of Drew Jaymson to Steve Strange is uncanny. As I looked at him I could almost hear the words Mr Strange used to say to me virtually every night in those days of yore: "Sorry, mate. Private party. Now piss off."

The real stand-out in the cast is Matt Lucas who plays the late Leigh Bowery. A grotesque and hugely charismatic Australian, Bowery was the leading light of this demimonde, its only occupant who could conceivably be described as brilliant. In a sense, he was a bigger star than Boy George--at one stage he was painted by Lucian Freud--and perhaps for that reason he's been cast as the villain of Taboo. Lucas has huge amounts of fun in the role, giving Bowery a camp, sneering malevolence that, as far as I know, he never had in real life. I found myself wishing that he'd step into the foreground and take command, just as Bowery did in his brief reign as the king of the London club scene.

One of the reasons Bowery was able to dominate this world so easily is that he had a degree of sophistication that its other members lacked and something of this innocence comes across in Taboo. Boy George and the other New Romantics were like a group of schoolchildren who'd discovered a dressing-up box in the attic of some maiden aunt and were running around town wearing its contents. They may have been totally uneducated--and none too bright--but they had a certain urchin-like charm and, for all its faults, this quality is preserved in Taboo.

From Love to Decay, which had a brief run at Jermyn Street, may be the worst-named play in the history of the British theatre. It's a two-hander performed by Melinda Hughes and Nigel Osner that consists of a series of songs loosely linked by the plot of A Star is Born. The real point of it, as far as I could see, is to advertise the talents of Miss Hughes and it performs this function very well. Melinda Hughes is a beautiful, 30-year-old soprano and her rendition of Je veux vivre left me wanting to go back stage for the first time in my brief career as a theatre critic. Luckily, my wife was sitting by my side, but I left the theatre completely bewitched. If a vacancy comes up in Kiss Me Kate the producers need look no further.

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