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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Our House
by Lizzie Loveridge

The simple equation of wrong versus right
The simple equation of black versus white
See where the paths lead in the long run
Which into darkness, which into sun
It's the simple equation of night versus day
Of owning up clearly, of running away
One path'll lose y' the girl that you love
This path you're white as the wings of a dove

-- lyrics to Simple Equation
Our House
Ensemble in school uniform
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Eagerly anticipated is Our House, a home grown British musical, featuring the music hits of an enigmatic seven member "Ska", a sort of Reggae hybrid, band of the 1980s, Madness. With great sing along numbers, like "House of Fun" and "Baggy Trousers", Matthew Warchus to direct and a youthful, enthusiastic cast, it had the makings of a big West End hit. So why after the polite applause, when the cast went into an original dance encore routine were the audience hushed as if longing for the show to end? Because, it was all too much. They wanted to go home.

The Madness music is both its strength and its weakness. The relentless beat, compulsive at first, becomes too samey to sustain musicality for the best part of three hours. Although two songs have been specially written for the musical, more contrast is needed in the form of ballads or slower numbers or even something more melodic and less relentlessly head banging. The opening number convinces that this is basic, unsophisticated FUN but this laddish musical is "in yer face, and full on" to the point where it will make you feel old beyond your years.

Add the convoluted story line which apes that other British musical hit Blood Brothers (about twins brought up differently), of a pivotal moment deciding two parallel lives, and the realisation that each scene has to be duplicated for both "good outcome" and "bad outcome" sinks in with numbing consequences to both butt and brain. The credibility of some of the story lines is poor. What loving son would agree to his mother's house being set on fire, even if she was meant to be out for the evening? The other problem is that this musical is set now and not in the 1980s which is bizarre because Madness' music was so distinctively 1980s.

There were patently lots of good ideas but this show is severely in need of some censorship. Like a cake with every possible flavour and colour of frosting, Our House is in need of some editing of the ingredients to make it more palatable. There were three scenes set in Borstal or prison, each conceived well, with great design, but altogether, too many. I loved the back projection of the roller coaster which was like a virtual ride and the scenes featuring the disintegrating Morris Minor car. There are dances in Camden Market cleverly aping the market traders from Oliver! and My Fair Lady, "Who will buy my cannabis?". There is plenty of local atmosphere and scenes of London life, including Joe's parents' meeting at the popular seaside resort of Margate.

The young cast work exceptionally hard and I can fault none of them. Michael Jibson gives value for money as he plays both versions of Joe Casey, Good Joe in white suit, Bad Joe in Black suit. Julia Gay plays his girlfriend Sarah and has a sweet voice. The choreography relies on raw energy but has some original moves including a kicking thigh dance from prone dancers. Ian Reddington works hard as a ghostly dead Dad trying to steer his son on the path he did not take.

What starts as dynamic, too soon becomes insensitive, crude, teeth jarring to the point where you need four Nurofen, two for your headache and two to shove in your ears as temporary ear plugs. It is a shame because with judicious cuts Our House could have been so much better. Sometimes less is more.

Our House
Music and Lyrics by Madness
Book by Tim Firth
Directed by Matthew Warchus

Effects by Paul Kieve
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Rick Clarke
Set and Costumes: Rob Howell
Musical Supervisor: Philip Bateman
Orchestration: Steve Sidwell
Choreography: Peter Darling
Starring: Michael Jibson and Julia Gay
With: James Beattie, Ruth Brown, Deborah Bundy, Peter Caulfield, Matt Cross, Mary Doherty, Tameka Empson, Richard Frame, Andrea Francis, Alison Forbes, Mark Hilton, Robyn Isaac, Oliver Jackson, Debbie Jenkins, Paul Kemble, Lynden O'Neill, Mike Scott, Darren Smithers, Andrew Spillett, Dean Stobbart, Chris Thatcher, Carryl Thomas, Hannah Tollman, Oliver Tompsett, Ian Reddington, Lesley Nicol
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1102
Booking to 1st March 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th November 2002 performance at the Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube Station: Covent Garden)
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