Book by Tim Firth, music and lyrics by Madness
The original Cambridge Theatre production of 2002 won an Olivier for Best New Musical, there have been three touring productions since (plus one in Japan) and now it's revived again by Southwark’s Union Theatre.
The Union may be the other side of the river but this company has all the energy of Camden and that drives Michael Burgen's production.
Played on a thrust stage, Eleanor Wdowski gives it a very simple setting of a yellow London stock brick terrace with four front doors: one of them open gives a glimpse of the band, a red one marks the home of the Caseys and at the end a railway arch carrying the old North London Line (now part of the Overgound), with a chequered stage cloth and a side wall chalked up with teenage graffiti. Jess Richardson-Smith then fills the stage with colourful streetwise costumes.
There are 22 numbers, some of them reprised versions, and all from the Madness songbook, but this doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical. Tim Firth’s book adds a minimum of dialogue, for the songs become part of the story, and that story has been build around what they were already saying.
It is the story of NW5 lad Joe Casey and of his choices, good ones and bad ones, and it follows the storylines of both possibilities.
It begins in a ballroom at Margate where Joe’s dad is with his mum Kath on the dance floor. They not only win first prize but she’s pregnant and he proposes.
Jump 17 years and Joe is about to be 16. The dad who seemed so splendid made the wrong choices and went to prison. He is dead now but his spirit still watches over Joe hoping that he will make the right ones.
To impress the girl at school on whom he’s keen, he breaks into a building, setting him off on the wrong track. He falls in with a local crook and soon ends up in a correctional centre for young offenders. While he gets into more trouble, Sara goes on to university. Though their lives split, she goes on loving him.
Steven France plays Joe Casey with an edge of cocky self-assurance but one that is easily undermined, Ailsa Davidson is Sarah. Far from cliché lovers, they are very real. An ordinary couple of kids, not phonily glamorised.
In fact the whole cast are a very eclectic bunch of youngsters, though the girls can turn on the glamour when needed. Sally Samad plays Joe's mum, often down on her knees praying for him, and there is a steady centre to the piece in Dominic Brewer’s Dad, calm in comparison with the frenzied pace of the youngsters.
William Whelton’s choreography with its high kicks and lunges within an inch of the audience demands precision and accuracy while generating a felling of exuberant abandon. It generates an almost non-stop vitality that in contrast heightens the occasional quiet, more serious moment and it is then especially that Tim Deiling's lighting most obviously shows its contribution to dramatic atmosphere.
There is a strong band under MD Richard Baker but the company (with one male exception) are well able to stand up to them without use of microphones—and it is great to hear London accents instead of mid-Atlantic ones of most modern pop.
Our House isn’t all happiness, there are some very dark moments—it is a show that is partly about the replacement of old working class neighbourhoods with up-market developments, but it has an invigorating vitality that raises the spirits.
Of course if you don’t like the songs this won’t be for you, but I had not heard them for years and found them and these live-wire performers very enjoyable.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton