Review: New Talent Shines in “Taboo”
Review: New Talent Shines in “Taboo”
It’s been nine years since Boy George’s musical “Taboo” was last seen in London. In that time, the show has seen its Broadway debut, won four Drama Desk Awards, an Olivier, and four Tony awards. “Taboo” made its London homecoming with a new visage at an intimate Brixton venue. With a few minor changes to the book and two new songs, the production, despite a few issues, was still really fun and served as the perfect vehicle to showcase two rookies in their professional debut as the iconic Boy George and Leigh Bowery.
“Taboo” is the semi-autobiographical musical of Boy George from his rise to fame in the 1980s, the characters that shaped his world, and his drug addiction that lead to his demise. We see this world through the eyes of Billy (Alistair Brammer, from BBC’s “Any Dream Will Do”), a young photographer who rejects university and moves to London in hopes of forging a career for himself in the seductive music industry. His lens acts as a voyeur into a world of ever-changing attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and music against the backdrop of an angst-ridden Britain.
The production had a good mix of veterans from the original production and some new faces that brought a freshness to the work that could have otherwise felt like a reunion tour. Christopher Renshaw, who co-created “Taboo” with Boy George, came back to direct the show and Paul Baker reprised his award-winning role as the infamous club promoter, Philip Salon. Baker was excellent, but that’s not surprising, given his history with the role, which won him an Olivier nine years ago.
But the accolades has to be given to Sam Buttery, whose portrayal of the legendary Leigh Bowery was acutely sensitive, with just the right amount of flamboyance without making Bowery into a caricature. “Taboo” marks the professional debut for Buttery who cut his teeth on BBC’s talent show “The Voice” as one of Tom Jones’ final five. Buttery has grown so much as a performer and has taken what he’s learned from that show and finessed it for “Taboo”. Whether prancing around in elaborate costumes and makeup or disrobing and posing nude for Lucian Freud, there was no apprehension from Buttery. He was committed to the spirit of Bowery and his fearlessness was so exciting.
Another new talent was Matthew Rowland, who is fresh from his training at The Arts Educational School. Rowland is the young Boy George whose career the show follows. The role of Boy George, if not careful, can quickly turn into a parody. But Rowland, who wasn’t even born when Culture Club came into prominence, was careful in keeping the integrity of Boy George in tact. The nuisances that have become synonymous with the real Boy George were finely tuned so it felt like being transported back to 1981 rather than watching a cheap imitation in 2012.
Costume designer, Mike Nicholls', progression from the hard edge of punk to the softer New Romantics captured the essence of the era, as did the snappy music, which mixed Culture Club’s top hits with songs composed for the show. Niamh Perry, who plays the love interest to Billy, had great vocals that sometimes overpowered Brammer. But she acted as the glue that kept the production together amidst some of the weaker points of the show.
The first act, which was heavily focused on the Boy Geroge’s humble beginnings in a squat dreaming of stardom, was really cohesive. But in the second act when he reaches his musical peak and the consequences that lead to his downfall seemed really rushed. There were holes in the story and it felt very incomplete and haste.
Another issue was with the the stage layout. This production of “Taboo” was site specific to the venue, Brixton Club House. The purpose-built stage, which looked like an octopus with one central performing area and a few arms that extended through the venue, was really clever. As was the multi-use square cubes and the bar, which operated as both a part of the stage and a working bar during intermission. But unless audiences are sat right up against the stage, the view is obstructed, which is a real shame, given how visual the show actually is.
But overall, the production was strong and most importantly, it proved that “Taboo’s” appeal still resonates strong.
“Taboo: The Boy George Musical” is playing at the Brixton Club House until December 23.