Friday, 15 March 2013

Far From Being A Taboo

Whenever something has been hyped by friends or in the media, expectations are so high that I'm generally disappointed. Several months ago, I was pleased to see the return of a musical I watched almost ten years ago. I went along to the Grand in Leeds knowing nothing about the production and was absolutely blown away by it.

Mark Davies Markham's Taboo would undoubtedly appear in my top 5 theatre experiences if anyone challenged me to choose. Having seen it all those years ago I have often wondered why, after its initial tour, it seemed to disappear, rather than become a regular fixture in a West End Theatre – perhaps all the more surprising considering its Olivier Award win.

Co-written by the man himself, Taboo loosely follows Boy George's rise to fame. Markham's lively songs are both witty and moving, successfully reflecting the social upheaval of the time and shocking homophobia experienced by George and other New Romantic contemporaries. The script is cleverly packed with amusing innuendos and flamboyant characters while colourful costumes and sets reflect daring 80s' fashions.

I first saw Taboo being performed on a conventional proscenium stage that allows audiences to see the whole picture from as near or as far as seat prices and availability permit. The cast were faultless and the show had the added attraction of having Mark Little (Joe Mangel in Neighbours) playing Leigh Bowery. Normally seeing the good and bad in everything, I wouldn't call myself a hypercritical person but after Taboo couldn't think of a single criticism. I remember being inspired by the power of theatre and feeling energised.

Last weekend, I arrived at The Brixton Clubhouse feeling nervous. Having showered the show with praise for the last few months, I was anxious not to disappoint my companion. The cat-walk style stage only added to my nerves, making me fearful of audience participation. Sitting beside the edge of the stage, we both grew increasingly apprehensive as vibrantly dressed cast members walked around the bar area, pausing in menacing stances.

Although the experience was a completely different one, I'm relieved to say the revived production was just as worthy of the high praise its predecessor received. As Taboo is named after Leigh Bowery's legendary 80s' nightclub, its current performance space (a club venue above The Prince Albert pub) seems particularly apt. Lamp-lit tables and rows of chairs are dotted around a snaking cat-walk with the cast making use of the stage, table tops, bar surface and surrounding space. This set-up leaves little room for error and makes for a much more unique experience, ensuring every member of the audience sees the action from a different perspective.

Watching Paul Baker make a return to his role as Philip Sallon was an intensely personal experience as he paused inches away from my seat, facing my direction to sing one of the most emotionally raw numbers and caught my eye in the process. Final scenes following Leigh Bowery's life involved Samuel Buttery almost completely stripping off in a prolonged statuesque pose for the duration of a song; Those sitting nearest the club entrance would have had a direct view of his arse crack – I'm glad I wasn't sitting there!

The Verdict?

Even though vocals occasionally needed amplifying, Taboo's 2013 cast had no weak links with faultless performances from all. The Brixton Clubhouse venue provided a unique setting and approach to the musical, resulting in a memorable and exhilarating evening without disappointment.

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