While Cliff Richard rashly declares on the posters for the dire tribute show Cliff - The Musical that he wishes he was in it, Suggs really is in Our House, the musical that has been vividly and imaginatively constructed around the repertoire of the 1980s pop band, Madness, that he so memorably fronted.
After doing a week in the show in March 2003, he is now returning for a longer stint, though he doesn't so much front the show as give the show's hero a guiding voice of conscience.
Suggs plays the hero's late father, hovering over the parallel routes the 16-year-old Joe takes as he breaks into a Camden building site to impress his girlfriend Sarah. As Joe begins the cycle of repeating (some of) his dad's mistakes in his confrontations with the law, his long-absent dad now seeks to be more present: it's Carousel meets Blood Brothers.
While the intervention of a big personality in a small role threatens to unbalance a real ensemble show, Suggs acquits himself well, establishing a solid presence in long black trenchcoat.
The show, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength. When it first opened at the Cambridge Theatre in October 2002, it didn't entirely work, though there was never any doubt that it was extremely ambitious and promising. Seeking not only to fold some well-known pop songs into a new story, as opposed to simply doing a tribute-band style revue, Our House is a fully plot-driven musical with a social conscience that functions as a modern morality tale.
In the process, songs that once provided the soundtrack for a generation are now required to provide the soundtrack to a show, and to provide real fuel not just to ignite a trip down memory lane but to properly propel the plot, too.
The staging - already smart in the direction of Matthew Warchus and especially the wittiest choreography in town from Peter Darling that sees the stage frequently explode in kinetic energy - is now both slicker and sharper. And Michael Jibson, as Joe, gives one of the most charismatically charming, quick-change performances on a London stage.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following review dates from October 2002 when this production first premiered at the West End's Cambridge Theatre.
Our House is a rare beast. Of course, following the likes of Buddy, Abba's Mamma Mia and Queen's We Will Rock You, it will invariably be tarred with a "latest in the line of" brush, as book writer Tim Firth freely admits in his production diary. What's unusual about Our House is that it somehow doesn't actually seem like a catalogue musical, despite being just that.
This is thanks first and foremost to Firth's superb book - around which the greatest hits (and a few new ones) of 1980s ska band Madness fit so neatly they could have been penned for this very purpose - as well as Matthew Warchus' slickly modern directorial touch, Rob Howell's from-the-street backlit designs (spiced up with Paul Kieve's effects), Peter Darling's music video choreography and a hugely enthusiastic young company.
But back to the book. I honestly don't think enough praise can be heaped on Firth. Set in north London's Camden Town (where the "nutty boys" themselves were reared), Firth's modern morality tale concerns Joe Casey (Michael Jibson) who, on the night of his 16th birthday, breaks into a building site to impress his girlfriend, Sarah (Julia Gay). From there, Firth leads us down two parallel paths: one where Joe turns himself in to the police on that fateful night and one where he cuts and runs.
In doing so, Firth not only spins an engaging yarn but also mines Madness songs - including "House of Fun", "My Girl", "It Must Be Love" and the title song - for both their frenzied fun as well as their inherent yearning and sadness. This duality becomes clear through lyrics and dialogue echoed, to vastly different effect, as the two storylines are played out until they finally converge. It truly is a dramatic triumph.
As both good and bad Joe, always on stage and sometimes simultaneously so, Jibson is a cheeky chappie treat, deftly exploring the emotional shades of his character and enacting some unbelievable quick changes. Gay's Sarah is touching, too, though struggles more with the syncopated vocal challenges of Madness' distinct sound.
In supporting roles, Oliver Jackson and Richard Frame (as Joe's Little and Large sidekicks) and most especially Tameka Empson and Andrea Francis (as Sarah's Large and Larger than Life mates) provide comic, scene-stealing asides. Elsewhere, the character of Joe's father and angel guide (played capably by Ian Reddington) is at times too reminiscent of Blood Brothers' narrator - his "Simple Equation" refrain wearing thin, his gooey flashbacks with Joe's mum distracting.
But there are further delightful compensations in fantastic set pieces, such as the jalopy cruise through the capital's streets to the strains of "Driving in My Car" and a hilarious snippet of Camden Market trading, both replete with musical theatre nods to Oliver!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and others.
Whether you're mad on Madness or not, Our House is a musical that will make you proud - and thrilled - to be a Londoner (actual, spiritual or otherwise), our gorgeous cityscape writ large across the stage.