Can you take seriously a band that records cheerful, bouncy songs with titles like ‘Baggy Trousers’, nicknames its lead singer Suggs, makes notably wacky videos and calls itself Madness? You should, because despite its misleading image, the band produced songs which can be thoughtful, penetrating and sometimes dark. Perhaps it was this that attracted Tim Firth, author of Calendar Girls, to write the book for Our House, one of several ‘jukebox musicals’ that tried to emulate the success of Mamma Mia. Although it won the Olivier in 2003 for Best Musical, it was not a commercial success and closed after less than a year.
Today, both the musical and the group are enjoying something of a revival. Could it be that people are looking behind the superficial lightness of both and finding rather more? Certainly, the musical has some thought-provoking things to say about choices as one grows up, about rejection and about loss, as it tells the story of 16-year-old Joe Casey, who becomes a petty criminal to impress his would-be girl-friend, Sarah. Inviting obvious comparisons with the film, Sliding Doors, the story then splits as we follow Good Joe and Bad Joe through two very different lives, both watched over by the spirit of Joe’s dead Dad. Crime pays, honesty doesn’t, until the dramatic final moments, which prove the musical to be the modern equivalent of a medieval morality play.
Even if, like your reviewer, you can take Madness’s music or leave it, you can’t help but be won over by the energy, verve and pace of this production. The large ensemble is exceptional and the dancing is outstanding. Director and choreographer Claire Camble-Hutchins must have been thrilled to find a cast to whom she could give the best of her very considerable creative talent. But ability on its own is not enough, and hours of work must have gone into the slick and well-drilled routines, among which the opening number (‘Our House’) and ‘Wings Of A Dove’ stand out.
Dean Rawson is a most talented actor and his performance as Joe – both Joes – is something of a tour de force, sustaining a London accent well throughout. He is a worthy leader of an excellent cast. He and the costume team bring off some incredibly quick changes from the all-white of Good Joe to the all-black of Bad Joe and back again. As Sarah, Chloe Payne’s performance loses nothing by comparison with Dean’s; she is playing her first lead with P&P, but surely not her last. Rossano Sal conveys well the worried benevolence of Joe’s Dad and his singing voice is superb, his second-half duet with Chloe in ‘NW5’ being one of the highlights. Libby Russell and Claire Tarrant, and Christopher Stowe and Paul Simkins, as the equivalent of the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds respectively, add much to the comedy. Tim Berry gives a particularly convincing interpretation of Reecey, who first leads Bad Joe astray.
Set all this against an ingeniously flexible set, add in an excellent orchestra under musical director Adam Tuffrey, and you have a production to rank with P&P’s best – and praise does not come much higher than that. There are further performances on 23-25 May, with a 2.30pm matinée on the 25th.