Book by Tim Firth; music and lyrics by Madness
New Wolsey Theatre
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
There is much method in this 'Madness' musical: there is a strong narrative, a moral message, but most importantly the songs are performed by an enthusiastic and talented group of musicians.
The plot is a kind of inversion of Blood Brothers with the central character Joe Casey (Alexis Gerred) spliced in two near the beginning, to show the effects one decision could have on the rest of his life. Gerred gets to have plenty of fun switching between bad and not-quite-so-bad Joe.
This parallel worlds plot line is presented through a clever, versatile, monochrome set that subtly changes to show the two different worlds. It has a surprising amount of grit and thought for a musical and its very firmly ensconced in Madness's north London manor. Camden Lock is simply and hilariously recreated on stage.
Despite the serious plot, this musical and its cast don't take things too seriously. The dancing is appropriately energetic and not over-choreographed, the songs are well sung and the band members who double as many of the characters are tight. The jumping between different characters and playing in the band is often very quick and adds plenty of excitement to the show.
The songs are well chosen and it doesn't do any harm that Madness had so many hits that are well-known to a wide audience. Indeed the audience is one of the widest ranging, particularly in terms of age, that I've seen in a while.
"House Of Fun", "Baggy Trousers" and "Our House" obviously, all feature, however the key tune is "Simple Equation" whose lyrics form the backbone to the plot as sung by the saturnine figure of Joe's Dad (Sean Needham) as he oversees Joe's different life paths, a dark, distant figure with his own dubious past.
The cast appear to be quite young from Sarah (Daniella Bowen) Joe's childhood sweetheart, her bouncy friends Billie (Natasha Lewis) and Angie (Dominique Planter) and then Joe's more downtrodden mates Emmo (James Haggie) and Lewis (Alex Spinney).
All of them play their characters from teenagers into adulthood and not just that, they also play them in two ongoing parallel worlds. It must be quite an experience for the cast and they cope with all the changes very well.
I never thought I'd feel this way about a musical but it really is a great show which bounces skilfully between upbeat and melancholy and the metaphysical and the moral.
Reviewer: Seth Ewin