I was incredibly sad to hear last night about the sudden death of Steve Strange, that erstwhile fashion guru and lead singer of the new romantic band, Visage, whose song Fade to Grey is a synth-pop masterpiece.
Steve was featured in the musical Taboo, a West End show on which I worked as resident director almost fifteen years ago. It's holds a very special place in my heart as it's where I met my husband, Nathan.
Taboo was written by Boy George and featured many of those colourful gender-bending icons who lit up the club scene in the early 80s.
Steve Strange was one of the first of his peers to find fame. He ran brilliant clubs like Blitz at the Camden Palace and was known for his vicious door policy, which, we're told, would often find him holding up a mirror to a wannabe reveller and asking them "would you let you in if you were me?" He was known for his biting wit and ability to destroy a person with a deadly one-liner or withering look.
We fondly took the piss out of him in Taboo, and turned him into a bit of a puffed-up, peacock-like parody of himself. Steve was Welsh, but had long since lost his accent, so when Drew Jaymson played the role with more than a hint of the Gladys Pews, the real Steve Strange was both confused and a little offended. His voice was often heard reverberating in the front of house corridors; "I don't have a Welsh accent!"
Nathan actually took over the role of Strange about halfway through the show's run, and, in the process, took the character another step in the journey towards Ruth Madoc...
Taboo featured a sequence towards the end where the central characters began to acknowledge that they were falling out of fashion. Steve was depicted as a paranoid junkie, wearing a long snakeskin coat, which Boy George had nicked from the real Steve Strange back in the 80s. We're told it was worth thousands of pounds, yet it was man-handled and unceremoniously bashed about in the tiny dressing rooms at the theatre. I'm afraid the real Steve Strange at that time often seemed a little more like the bitter, bewildered man who was being shown on stage... Later I saw him on a celebrity hair cutting show, and he seemed to be much more at peace with the world.
There were a lot of wrecks and drug-addled relics hanging around Taboo in those days; former birds of paradise who'd lost all of their beautiful plumage. One of the real life characters portrayed in Taboo sat next to me in the audience on one occasion and, when, his character appeared on stage said to me (rather loudly) "Who's that then?" "That's you!" I said, wondering why on earth he hadn't grasped that particular concept. "But I'm here... in the audience," he said. And that pretty much summed up what we were dealing with. I'd regularly find them, mid-show, weeping in the loos. Weeping perhaps for what had been, what they'd lost, or maybe simply because they didn't know what was going on! It was sometimes hard to know what to say to them. They'd been so, so luminous, and yet here they all were, fading to grey... And not really dealing that well with the process...
That said, anyone who made it out alive from the era would probably consider themselves incredibly lucky. If Aids didn't get you, the drugs probably would, so the very few, like Philip Sallon, who survived with their sanity are actually now considered the freaks they always longed to be!
That world of Taboo seems so distant now. Ironically, it was staged as long ago now as some of the actual events we were depicting were when we started rehearsals for the show.
There was a great legitimacy to what we were doing back then. The theatre we'd created for the show (underneath a spooky Catholic Church in Leicester Square) had an adjoining wall to the building where the actual Taboo club had been. Our make-up artist was the sister-in-law of the late, great Leigh Bowery, who also featured in the show, and the choreographer Les, was one of his best friends. It all became a little "meta" towards the end when the real Philip Sallon started to behave like the on-stage parody of himself and Boy George joined the cast - not to play Boy George - but to play Leigh Bowery!
Happy times, though. And many of the cast have gone on to do great things. Hollywood actor, Luke Evans, fresh out of drama school, played Billy. And Dec Bennett, who is currently Charlie Watts in Eastenders took over in that particular role. Casting director, Anne Vosser certainly knew talent when she saw it! We would often go out on the town after the show (quite regularly in New Romantics-style make-up) and we were quite a force to be reckoned with.
And of course, without Steve, and George and Marilyn and Leigh and Philip, there would have been no Taboo. So rest in peace, dear chap. By all accounts you were a complicated, brilliant, sometimes difficult man, but you brought joy to many.