Back in 2002, a few years before they started Whingeing, Andrew and Phil had the unfamiliar experience of actually enjoying a new musical, Our House at the Cambridge Theatre.
Of course it was doomed. Despite our enthusiasm and the show going on to win the Olivier Award for Best New Musical it ran for less than 10 months and was consigned to the overstuffed dustbin of flops while lesser shows went on to run forever.
We say “new musical” but the score and lyrics were furnished from the back catalogue of ska revivalists Madness. It also featured Lesley Nicol who went on to wider fame as Mrs Patmore in Downton Abbey. Who knew? We certainly didn’t. How could we have?
Nicol was rather more age-appropriate in the role of Joe Casey’s mother than the rather youthful, but rather effective, Sally Samad who appears in this revival. Following this years trend for shows about fateful birthdays (cf. Everyman and The Trial), Joe (Steven France) celebrates his 16th birthday by breaking into a property to impress his girlfriend Sarah (Ailsa Davidson) and makes a decision that will affect the rest of his life by scarpering when the rozzers turn up. Or does he? For in a Sliding Doors scenario we get to see what happens to the less bad Joe who stays and faces the music, while Bad Joe goes on to lose his girlfriend and get involved in a shady property deal which involves turfing his own mother out of her Camden home.
Tim Firth‘s plot is a neat device to ram in as many of the hugely infectious Madness songs as possible. True to the form of jukebox musicals some fit like a glove while others are shoe-horned in rather cheekily. They’re performed with tremendous energy and inventiveness against music from Richard Baker’s excellent band, with choreography that struggles to be confined by the tiny Union Theatre’s space. If you sit in the front row, you may find yourself leaning back to avoid being walloped by a stray limb.
The switching between the two Joes – so brilliantly done in the original production by Paul Kieve’s illusions – is rather fumbled here due to the sightlines. We sat on the left of the stage, which also worked against the staging of “Driving In My Car”. Yes it’s that age old problem of thrust staging. Will people ever learn? Probably not.
Michael Burgen’s production proves rather uplifting despite a surprisingly dark end to Bad Joe’s story. And despite the two Joes being clearly defined by black or white clothing we were a tad muddled by some of the plot points towards the end of the evening.
How much you enjoy this show will no doubt be affected by your enthusiasm for Madness songs. “It Must Be Love” is particularly effectively performed by the likeable leads, France and Davidson, both chattering away while the other sings their bit. Phil was especially thrilled to hear the song referencing his postcode “NW5” performed and has been “singing” the tunes endlessly ever since, much to the annoyance of those around him.