JOHN LAWSON Norwich Theatre Royal
Cult hit Taboo is a remarkable homage to the hedonistic New Romantic movement – but of course what sets it apart from the oft-told tale of a rise and dramatic fall of a period of pop culture is that the characters are real.
Boy George's own story as part of those heady days recalled his descent from pop superstardom into drug- induced stupour and offers no happy ending apart from our own knowledge that he at least recovered to turn into something of a national treasure.
His story pulls no punches in showing us that for many of his contemporaries – notably style icon Leigh Bowery, who was to die of Aids in 1993 – there was to be no way back.
The true story is weaved around the tale of fictional photographer Billy (Declan Bennett), who leaves his bullying father (Steven Osborne) and put-upon mother (Jacqui Rae) and gains acceptance to the strange clubland culture built by party organiser Phillip Sallon (Drew Jaymson), who even out-camps the ever-outrageous Julian Clary as Bowery.
However, nothing can outdo Clary in the costume department, Bowery's unique style faithfully recreated by contemporary designer Mike Nicholls.
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In an amazing twin role, Osborne doubles as gruff transvestite drug dealer Petal, almost as far from his father character as can be imagined.
Also appearing among the glitterati are Visage front man Steve Strange (Gareth Heesom) and George's long-time confidant and latterly rival Marilyn (a lithesomly feminine performance from the outstanding James Gillan). George himself is almost cloned by Stephen Ashfield's eerily accurate portrayal.
The first half of Mark Davies's book follows a rather depressing boy-meets-girl pattern as Billy meets up with angry young woman Kim (Ashleigh Gray) and sets about softening her.
But the mood turns seriously dark after the interval as we get to the real meat of the story – that crushing col-lapse of an erstwhile “wonderful life”.
Bowery's death, all but alone in a bare hospital room, is deeply moving.
Along the way are a number of Boy George hits including Do You Really Want to Hurt Me and Church of the Poisoned Mind, but the real stand-out numbers were written by George especially for the show, proving just what a great songwriting talent he is.
And there are some great voices to sing them too, notably Bennett and Gray on Love is a Question Mark; Ashfield and Gray on Pretty Lies; Jaymson with Petrified; the inter-woven Out of Fashion, by Heesom, Gillan, Ashfield and Bennett; and the heart-tugging Il Adore, performed by Emma Bispham as Big Sue.
It was a second half, particularly, that deserved better than the thin sprinkling of a first-night audience. A better house will certainly create the kind of clubland party atmosphere to ignite the whole piece. Bring it on!
t Taboo continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday May 29. Further details from the box office on 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk