This is genuinely like nothing I have ever seen. A real mixed bag, Our House is a musical by Tim Firth with songs exclusively by Madness, the most commercially successful band of the 2-Tone ska era of the early 1980s. The plot itself is somewhat complicated, and for a lot of the time unclear. It follows the life of Joe Casey, starting from his sixteenth birthday, when he breaks into a block of flats in an attempt to impress the girl he likes, Sarah, with a view over the suburb. Deciding to flee on hearing the police, Sarah questions his judgement, and he’s reminded of his father, who made ‘bad choices’ went to prison and never came home. We then see key moments in his life as he makes right or wrong choices, often tempted by the obvious bad boy friend, Reecey. After the interval, it becomes a bit clearer that we are witnessing both alternatives, with a scene being played out through him making the ‘wrong’ choice, followed by the same scene with him making the ‘right’ one.
The main problem, aside from the plot, is that it seems like Firth really likes Madness, but hasn’t really based the show around them. What results is something that sounds very much like a conventional West End musical with Madness songs shoe-horned into it. Often the links between the songs and the story are tenuous, or non-existent, and the tone set in them is much more along the lines of show tunes than the ska anthems that the songs were in their original context. This also means that the reasoning behind having Madness as your main musical content becomes blurred.
The performances do vary in quality, but the production is guided by two very strong leads. As Joe Casey, Steven France has a real presence and energy, while also bringing some lovely facial expressions for the more emotional scenes. It is his intensity that carries many of the scenes. His singing warms up over the course of the show, but it is the dancing where he really shows a confident, attentive side to his performance. Ailsa Davidson, playing his love interest, Sarah, does not quite carry the same presence and variation, but is still engaging in her scenes alone with France, and has the strongest singing voice of the principals, particularly letting rip in ‘N.W.5’. Dominic Brewer, as Dad, takes a while to get his singing voice up to speed, but impresses thereafter, though his characterisation when acting seems a little one-dimensional, though he has a very difficult role.
What really keeps you involved, though, is the excellent ensemble, right across the board. The dancing, which was frenetic, was brilliantly executed, particularly on the bigger numbers, and each was done with real enjoyment and real intensity. Particularly watchable were Joseph Giacone and Joe Ashman, playing Joe’s best friends Emmo and Lewis, and Alice Baker and Lauren Dinse in the ensemble. The singing is strong and their physicality dominates the relatively small stage space.
While their execution of it was fantastic, the choreography was questionable for reasons I have outlined above. Taken out of context, it was brilliant, moving a large number of bodies around a small space freely, using entrances and exits very well to keep the energy high. However, I feel that, other than the first and last numbers, ‘Our House’ and ‘Primrose Hill/Our House Reprise’, they do not take into account Madness’ identity as a band and their place in British culture. The rest of the songs present as classic West End choreography, with plenty of clicking, waving hands and smooth formations. This works fine, and looks impressive, but lacks a little soul.
The lighting is well designed, especially with a small space in mind, but the execution of the cues seems a little off. The costumes themselves signal 80s, but become more symbolic as the show goes on and lose a little consistency, though the number of them and the speed at which changes are administered is quite staggering.
Realistically, I think enjoyment of this show will come down to what sort of perspective you have, depending on your views towards musicals and Madness. I still don’t feel that it really fits together as a script, and the reasoning behind using Madness songs, other than them hailing from Camden, seems unclear, but there are definite positives. It is an enjoyable show in the way it is presented, it looks like it was great fun putting it together, and the whole company bring a real bright energy to proceedings. A very difficult one to sum up as it is a real variety of different facets. I can’t, therefore, say it is an excellent production, but it’s certainly an enjoyable watch and certain elements do reach a really high level.
Our House is playing Union Theatre until 12 September. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website. Photo by Darren Bell.