That Old Feeling: Queens

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DAVE CAULKIN/AP

Sharon Clark (L) as Killer Queen with Alex Hanson in 'We Will Rock You'

I'm back from a four-day, nine-show tour of the London stage, and no, to answer your immediate question, I did not see Madonna, or Gwyneth. (The once Material, now Imperial Girl is playing an art dealer in David Williamson's Aussie "Up for Grabs," and Paltrow has the lead in a West End transfer of the Broadway hit.) I did catch a play, Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth," featuring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck's little brother Casey and River/Joaquin/Rain Phoenix's kid sister Summer. I was also in a restaurant that Vanessa Redgrave had just left. Can I trade all of these famous, infamous or kin-famous actors in for Mad and Gwyn?

No? No matter. I still think I had a rich visit. American pop divas and movie hotties may be bringing younger crowds into the West End, but they are not the lure for me. I confess that go to the British theater to see... the Brits! They're good at it. They've been doing it longer. At the very least, the level of mediocrity is much higher there than on the New York stage. At its teeming best, London gives playgoers the chance to share the illuminating careers of great actors — not just Gielgud and Guinness and three generations of Redgraves, but long-time favorites like Julia McKenzie, Penelope Keith, Alan Bates, Felicity Kendal, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Lindsay Duncan — to hear them speak the language with beauty, wit, power, and to follow their career arcs as they inhabit roles we would never know if we had seen only their film and TV work.

One more thing. In a media age that homogenizes and globalizes, and even with the blurring of lines between West End and Broadway musicals, the English theater stays defiantly English. Those lovely Ealing comedies have vanished from the screen; "Masterpiece Theater" is stooped with age, and the PBS schedule rarely tolerates even the best Britcoms. So Anglophiles like me cross the Atlantic to be reminded of the precious ephemerality of stage acting and the endangered but enduring nature of Englishness (and Welshness and Scottishness), and of the English theater. Oh to be in London, now that spring is here!

So there I was, two weeks ago, bathing in Kendal's tart luminescence as she played a suburban Gertrude to Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet in the blooming, searching comedy "Humble Boy." At the National Theatre, Shaw was in "The Powerbook," directed by her regular co-conspirator Deborah Warner, so again I got to itemize the Irish actress' tics and furies; that was exhilarating. I dozed during Peter Hall's version of "The Bacchai" (also at the National), played by actors in full-face masks. Didn't Hall notice that when a performer's mouth is covered, his speech becomes muffled? That's something of a hindrance when the text is Euripides' complex verbal arias. I also caught Marc Salem's one-man show "Mind Games," in which the New York psych-out intuits a drawing he can't see, a word from a book he hasn't read, a place and an emotion you're thinking of. Is it mentalism? Mesmerism? A great stunt? I can't say, but Salem surely picked the pocket of my skepticism.

Note: for research purposes only, I sat through the new hit musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," based on the 1968 movie musical. It has a flying car (reminiscent of airborne chandeliers and helicopters of musicals gone by) that, at the matinee I attended with 2,000 mesmerized schoolchildren, actually rose and "flew" out over the first rows of spectators. The show boasts an attractive cast of veterans: Brian ("Cats") Blessed, Nicola ("Poppy") McAuliffe, Edward ("Nicholas Nickleby") Petherbridge and, as the villainous Childcatcher, Richard ("The Rocky Horror Show") O'Brien, who was hissed throughout, including at his curtain call, by the children. They apparently had a spiffing time. I didn't. I found "CCBB" as dull and painful as a long chat with my body-shop mechanic. The songs, by Richard and Robert Sherman ("Mary Poppins"), are wan rewrites of music-hall tropes. Did any of the Sherman brothers' movie music equal the effervescent diversion of their 1960 pop hit "You're Sixteen"?

Pop music was on my mind in London. My official mission — exclusively for TIME.com! — was to see two new shows inspired by British pop groups of the 70s and 80s. "We Will Rock You" is a collection of 30-plus Queen songs cocooned in a futuristic plot. "Taboo" is an intimate memoir-musical with music by Culture Club's decadent decal, Boy George. Both bands created tunes that spoke to its generation even as it bowed to classic pop music. Both were fronted by gay showmen who loved to dress in drag (what Brit entertainer doesn't?). It also happens that the two productions were directed by Christopher Renshaw, best known on this side of the Pond for his mid-90s revival of "The King and I." And of course both hope to cash in on the catalogue-musical trend spearheaded by the multi-continental success of the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia."



IT'S A MIRACLE

Why bury the lede? I say "yay" to "Taboo." I had one of the best theater times I can remember, up there with such stage-rock blasts as the original "Rocky Horror Show" and the off-Broadway "Little Shop of Horrors." A pocket history of the New Romantic club-scene movement of the late 70s and early 80s, "Taboo" manages to treat its colorful characters with tartness and affection. The cast, largely composed of actors who were hardly born when the people they're playing were flourishing and flouting, is terrif, top to bottom. And the 22, mostly ballad-like songs, which Boy George (O'Dowd) wrote with Kevin Frost, Richie Stevens and John Themis, have lilt, snap and instant hummability. Though a four-song CD is available now, I was sorry I couldn't immediately take the whole score home with me in disc form.

Culture Club was a fun group to watch and listen to. Its light, reggae-inflected style produced three hits: "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" and "Karma Chameleon," a song George got so sick of that for a while he refused to perform it. A garish vision in dark red, black-lined lipstick and matching attitude, George merged the campy but supposedly straight visual voluptuousness of glam rock with the proudly gay club subculture. He then committed a very rock-star-like cliché and became a heroin addict. Since rehabilitated (and, intermittently, reunited with his band mates), George is now a DJ of distinction. Surviving drug addiction and watching so many friends, including Bowery, die of AIDS has given him an Olympian perspective on the New Romantics. "Taboo" is fashion recollected in tranquility.

All the unusual suspects are here: the club organizer Philip Sallon (played by Paul Baker), gender-blender Boy George (Euan Morton), drag-queen pop singer Marilyn (Mark McGee) and performance artist Leigh Bowden (played this time by Boy George himself). But the show's book, by Mark Davies, is clever enough to plant a heterosexual kid in the midst of these gay blades, for easy identification by any heterosexual stragglers into the Venue, the former club (and before that, church crypt) that serves as the "Taboo" theater. Davies also creates a sympathetic, suffering mother figure — an Everymum played Lyn Paul (who more than 30 years ago had a worldwide hit, the Coke jingle "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," with the New Seekers) — to answer the first question many conservatives have when they see the flamboyant characters who populate the show: What do their mothers think? Well, their mums love them; and "Taboo" loves them right back.

So here's straight-arrow but artistic Billy (Luke Evans), stranded in downtown Bromley. Billy's mum is a caring, pining sort, but his dad wants only his pint and his telly. "I don't waste my time kidding myself that I'm going to mean something," he tells Billy, who replies, "Then you'll never be disappointed." He's gotta get out of this place, so he exiles himself to London. There he quickly meets Boy George, who consoles Billy with his own life story: "My dad wanted me to be a builder. But I wanted to paint and decorate myself." Sizing up Billy with a knowing ogle, he adds, "I could be up for conversion, though."

This bitchy repartée is a tinge redolent of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, but out of the closet — less cowardly, more wild. And George gets most of the punch lines. Billy: "So you're straight?" George (lewdly): "Straight up you." ... Billy, of the drag queen singer Marilyn: "Isn't she pretty?" George: "Yeah. If you like a pig in a wig." ... Marilyn, of the actress who was her inspiration: "I'm Norma Jean. I was born the year she died." George: "Yeah, she died and left behind an abnormal gene." Later, when George becomes the pop star Boy George, he parries press questions as adroitly as the Beatles used to do. Q.: "Are you homosexual?" B.G.: "Well, I have sex at home." Q.: "Are you bisexual? B.G.: "I'm trisexual. I'll try anything."

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