Our House continues at the Union Theatre, London until 12 September.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
One of the best ways of ensuring that a jukebox musical succeeds is a catalogue of songs that are lyrically rich, so that their themes can be woven together into a coherent story. Our House fares better than most on this score – playwright Tim Firth being such a fan of Madness’ songs that he once claimed that he didn’t so much write the book as find it.
Unfortunately, what a jukebox show also needs is a wide variety of musical styles to allow the requisite highs and lows of the musical to be accompanied and enhanced by the music. And while the Madness back catalogue has a couple of sweet ballads, the Union’s exuberant revival of Our House demonstrates that far too many of their songs crowd into the same space on the emotional and musical spectrum.
Firth’s book follows Camden boy Joe Casey (Steven France), whose decisions on his 16th birthday precipitate two parallel stories, Sliding Doors style, all overseen by the ghost of his dead father (Dominic Brewer). Some sleight-of-hand by director Michael Burgen ensures the transitions between ‘Good Joe’ and ‘Bad Joe’ are well handled, and some full ensemble dance numbers lift the spirits, with William Whelton’s choreography mixing ballet, can-can and street dance with Madness’ trademark stuttering walks.
But the biggest challenge to Our House comes down to the limitations of the Madness catalogue. Popular as they were throughout the 1980s and with a fanbase that is still strong today, nobody would claim that frontman Suggs had the greatest range. All the songs written by the group for his voice carry those limitations through to the musical, leaving the capable performers with little to work with in melodic range. Unfortunately, the compensation for this is to blast every lyric out at full volume, which may match the exuberance of the dancing but limits the possibilities of engagement with the music.
A couple of exceptions demonstrate what can be done with a little more care. Ailsa Davidson as Joe’s love interest Sarah delivers the show’s big ballad, ‘NW5’, with raw emotion, backed by musical director Richard Baker’s band to produce the most memorable performance of the evening. And a duet between Davidson and France provides the best opportunity to see that there is genuine feeling between the two lead characters. But it is ironic that this sweetest of moments, sung to one of Madness’ biggest hits, ‘It Must Be Love’, was written not by the group, but by Labi Siffre, whose songwriting sadly goes uncredited in this musical.
With so many of this ensemble fresh out of drama school, the Union’s production of Our House never really escapes the feeling of being a high school production. And while it may find some appeal with younger audiences and/or Madness fans, one hopes that they connect with it in spite of its flaws rather than ignoring them.