One of the freshest and most original of new musicals of recent years, Our House, stands up pretty well on the UK tour which was launched at the Birmingham Rep last month, came to the Churchill, Bromley, last week (where I saw it) and plays the Bradford Alhambra this week.
The original production team of director Matthew Warchus, designer Rob Howell and choreographer Peter Darling has ensured that Tim Firth’s Olivier award-winning, colourful and enjoyable show (at the Cambridge Theatre in October 2002), written around the songs of ska band Madness, seems as good as new, though the representation of Camden Town low-life might have been eclipsed by Che Walker’s current Frontline at the Globe.
With a nod towards both Alan Ayckbourn’s manipulation of alternative narratives and the film Sliding Doors, where Gwyneth Paltrow’s destiny hinged on a moment of choice, Firth ingeniously creates parallel stories developed from the split second when Joe Casey (Chris Carswell) has to either surrender or scarper – come clean or go crooked - after breaking in to a building site with his girlfriend Sarah (Ellie Robertson standing in competently for Miria Parvin at the performance I attended).
Dramatising both career options allows Firth to approach the property market issue from all sorts of angles while writing a variation of the Blood Brothers theme of an Irish working class mother (excellent Gwyneth Strong) torn apart in different scenarios.
As before, there are strong emotional connections made in the rival demands of the two Joes, and in the hovering, admonitory ghost figure of Joe’s dead ex-con dad (Steve Brookstein, making a fair stage debut after his television X-Factor success four years ago).
The songs slip in almost as seamlessly as Abba’s do in Mamma Mia!, the other pop compilation show that transcended the juke box genre. The original production was fired by the delightful personality of Michael Jibson; Carswell’s split personality Joe is less energetic, and it’s the ensemble performance of Madness favourites that sets the pace.
This year’s Madness single “NW5” serves as an effective new item of emotional decision for Sarah, leading to the clinching duet of “It Must Be Love.” Otherwise, the title song, “Baggy Trousers”, “Wings of a Dove” and the rest still delight in their raucousness, sand-dance rhythms, and sheer cheeky good fun.
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from 3 June 2008 when the production was at Birmingham Repertory theatre.
There’s always been a fine line between madness and genius. Tim Firth and Matthew Warchus’ (writer and director, respectively) Our House hovers somewhere in the middle; with flashes of brilliant stagecraft and energy in a slightly bonkers plot.
The story revolves around the life, loves and decisions of hapless urban teenager, Joe Casey: his mates, his mum, his (dead) dad, his girl and of course, his house. (In the middle of his street.) But from this simple premise it splits into two: depending on the choices Joe makes, the consequent plots run alongside each other until the final showdown when they merge. All to the musical backdrop of Madness’ greatest hits.
Appropriately, the result is a little bit nuts. But like most things that are a little bit nuts, it’s also a lot of fun. There’s an irrepressible energy about the show, some great show-stopping all-singing, all-dancing ensemble numbers, witty one-liners and spectacular stage-craft from Warchus, Rob Howell (Set and Costume Design) and Paul Kieve. It’s not often that the ‘Illusions and Costume Effects’ guy (Kieve) gets a mention, but there’s spinning doors, flying cars and quick-change artistry that would make David Blaine gasp. There is also, of course, for Madness fans, the obvious bonus of all this being accompanied by a live band blasting out the back catalogue.
It’s a strange, and at times quite surreal mixture of grit and fantasy, of High School Musical and social inclusion programme, at once both complex and also as subtle as a brick. A little bit of craziness can be fun, but sometimes it can also be a bit baffling. And it could indeed be a genius idea to write a musical to the songs of Madness, but, particularly in the first half there were many moments that just seemed a bit clunky and odd; as if some loose threads of plot had been crow barred in around the hits.
The second half, however, really picks this production up. It’s more focused, more compelling and with more of a momentum that carries you to the final showdown in front of the Casey house (yep, in the middle of their street..) It’s also more emotionally engaging and contains some impactful moments, such as the cleverly-done poignant rendition of ‘It Must Be Love’, or the Oliver-esque shindig down at Camden Lock.
The talented young cast, led by Chris Carswell and Miria Parvin, give some energetic performances; although there is the slightly discordant element of ex-Drama School adults playing reprobate teenagers - making it a little more Disney than gritty. But then, it’s not meant to be a show that takes itself too seriously. Firth never chose to set his plot to Radiohead, after all. And the audience loved it; everyone was up off their seat for a final encore, bouncing up and down and pretend marching to the inimitable pop-ska. It may be a bit odd, but it’s pretty enjoyable.