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World of Taboo

With Julian Clary starring as Leigh Bowery in Boy George's musical, Taboo, you can be sure that the make-up artists at Newcastle Theatre Royal won't be under-employed next week.

Julian Clary in Taboo

With Julian Clary starring as Leigh Bowery in Boy George's musical, Taboo, you can be sure that the make-up artists at Newcastle Theatre Royal won't be under-employed next week.

Human butterflies all of them, more wedded to their cosmetics than those ladies who wield the lipsticks in Fenwick's.

I was going to say that their flamboyant looks made them famous. But only two of the above names are likely to strike a chord. Who was Leigh Bowery?

"I'd say he's much more famous than he ever was in his lifetime," says Clary, a subdued and thoughtful interviewee away from the glitz and the carefully crafted double entendres, as befits one educated by Benedictine monks.

"He was at the epicentre of the whole New Romantic crowd who were into dressing up and wearing a lot of a make-up. But he managed to take it onto a different level.

"He was a very big man and very flamboyant but he was a bit of an enigma really. I saw him around. I was a bit scared of him.

"Not only was he big but he would wear these outfits where his entire face was covered and just his eyes were showing."

Clearly Boy George hero-worshipped the outsize Australian who was an unmissable figure on the London club scene in the early 1980s.

Bowery is recalled by those who knew him as an exhibitionist, a man who strove to succeed in many different fields - as fashion designer, as pop star, as performance artist, as life model - but never found a wide audience.

In 1985 he had a hand in opening the London nightclub Taboo which is recalled in the title of the musical.

Another crowd will be aware of him as a figure in portraits by the distinguished painter Lucian Freud. Freud revels in painting human flesh and Bowery, a man mountain, had more of it than most. One startling portrait shows him lying naked next to a tiny woman.

Diagnosed HIV positive, Bowery died in 1994 in his mid-thirties. He was buried in Australia next to his mum.

Boy George first persuaded Clary to play Bowery in the West End run of Taboo in 2002 and he is back on board for the UK tour which comes to Newcastle next week. The camp comedian says it wasn't something he leapt at immediately. It took some thought.

"I'm not doing an impression in any real sense," he says carefully. "But I hope that what I do is in the spirit of Leigh. With that make-up and those costumes, you couldn't really be anyone else."

It sounds as if Clary, whose first income was earned as a singing telegram, is a little less enamoured of the early 1980s scene than Boy George whose band Culture Club grew out of it. Bowery, he suggests, had "quite an interesting life".

The musical, he says, "doesn't spare you any of the details about the whole crowd of people then who led very vacuous lives. Leigh wasn't a nice person. They were all basically quarrelling with each other and bitching and stealing each other's boyfriends."

Clary says that when Bowery realised he was HIV positive, he refused to submit to the condition, spurning proper treatment. Brave or irresponsible? Different people will react in different ways.

Taboo, he warns, is "a very unusual musical. It's quite gritty and epic. It's really a study of a group of young, fairly lost souls with some brilliant songs along the way.

"Some people think it's a Culture Club tribute show but it's not that. George has written about 20 new songs but I think any new show will stand or fall on the strength of its writing.

"By the time you get to the end of Taboo, you'll feel as if you've sat through Gone With The Wind."

Premiered in London in 2002, Taboo was well received critically in London and on Broadway, where it wasn't a box office success, and it seems destined to appeal in much the same way as The Rocky Horror Show which will probably be with us till doomsday.

For young people - younger than Julian Clary, who was there at the time - the 1980s is now long enough ago to be a source of fascination, much like the 1960s.

While some recall the decade for Thatcher, the Falklands and industrial strife, others remember the youthful sub-culture of frills and greasepaint - the world of Taboo.

Julian Clary, who celebrated his 45th birthday on the day we spoke, is booked into the show until July after which he promises to turn his attention to his autobiography, a project he has been mulling over for some time. There's a taste of it in the very Claryesque title, A Young Man's Passage.

* Taboo is at Newcastle Theatre Royal Monday to Saturday. Box office: 0870 905-5060.


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