I never understood why, despite winning the 2003 Olivier award for Best Musical, the West End production of this glorious Madness-Tim Firth confection wasn't a bigger hit. The question still stands after seeing James Tobias' new touring version which, while cruder, broader and smaller in scale than the stunning Matthew Warchus original, still ticks so many of the boxes of what makes great musical theatre: a thumping good story, relatable characters, laughter, tears, exhilarating dancing and a varied score packed full of magnificent songs.
This iteration has some rewriting and a new song added that slightly weaken the overall emotional impact, but this is still an infinitely better crafted show than any other ‘jukebox' musical. Indeed if you weren't familiar with Madness as a band you could be forgiven for assuming that this is simply a sparky new pop musical with an exceptionally tuneful integrated score, so well do hits such as "It Must Be Love", "My Girl", "House Of Fun" and the ebullient, big-hearted title song fit into Firth's cheekily clever script.
In telling the tale of Camden teenager Joe Casey breaking into a building site to impress a girl on the night of his 16th birthday, Firth borrows from the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors and gives us two stories for the price of one. One version shows Joe giving himself up to the police and suffering the consequences while the other sees him running away and becoming a huge success, albeit on the back of much dodgy wheeler-dealing and questionable company. In theatrical terms this means a few breathtakingly quick changes for the actor playing Joe, some almost cinematic cross cutting between the two stories and two hugely satisfying story arcs that converge thrillingly at the conclusion. It's at once ingenious and accessible, and the running theme of the gentrification of the city at the expense of born and bred Londoners feels bang up-to-date.
With the exception of "Baggy Trousers" which crops up here as a crowd pleasing finale, the Madness songs have an irresistible tinge of melancholy even at their most raucous, and this works tremendously well for the theatre. The inventive splicing together of a couple of the numbers - such as "Tomorrow's Just Another Day" with "It's Raining Again" for a spine-tingling act one finale clearly delineating the parallel Joes' differing fortunes - proves especially dramatically potent.
Fabian Aloise's high energy choreography may lack the rollicking elegance of Peter Darling's inspired original but still brings the house down, and is zestfully executed by the terrific ensemble. The sound and lighting are a bit sloppy but the use of constantly moving doorways to create locations and differentiation between the dual storylines works superbly.
In the mammoth central role, Jason Kajdi sings and dances up a storm but could do more to distinguish between the two versions of Joe; he is more successful as cocky jack-the-lad than downtrodden, and lacks the heartbreaking vulnerability that made Michael Jibson so unforgettable in the role first time round. Sophie Matthew is lovely as both editions of his girl Sarah, while there is fabulous work from Billy Roberts, Will Haswell, Etisyai Philip and Jessica Niles as their respective best mates. Britain's Got Talent breakout star George Sampson is an astonishing dancer but struggles to make a credible character out of bad apple Reecey while Deena Payne and Callum McArdle are hugely likeable as Joe's parents.
Ultimately, whatever the minor shortcomings of this production, this is a very easy show to love. It's mouthy, surprisingly moving, deceptively accomplished, perfectly judging the balance between keeping Madness fans happy and satisfying theatregoers eager for something with a bit of depth. Worth catching.
Our House runs at Bromley until 28 October and then continues to tour the UK.