Fancy a West End musical about conflicting lifestyles? One protagonist a downtrodden rough diamond and the other living in morally compromised prosperity? A narrator who stands apart from the action, singing pessimistically prophetic commentaries? Plus, naturally, the course of true love never running smooth? Well, now you have a choice of two. Willy Russell's Blood Brothers at the Phoenix has been running for twelve years, and is now joined five minutes' walk away at the Cambridge by the Madness musical Our House, cut from almost identical thematic cloth.
The difference is that, where Russell presents us with twin brothers, one given up at birth for adoption, Tim Firth's book for Our House adopts a Sliding Doors strategy, intercutting two alternative life stories of young protagonist Joe, which bifurcate at the moment he either does or doesn't give himself up to police after breaking into an apartment complex on his sixteenth birthday to impress his girlfriend Sarah. One Joe becomes an honest loser, the other a shady wheeler-dealer; each is offered a final chance for redemption by saving the family's Camden Town terraced house, "our castle and our keep", from the developers.
Firth is a clever writer: he subverts expectations by making his unfortunate Joe the one who gives himself up and serves his time in a young offenders' institution; he emerges determined upon a course of honesty, but it gets him nowhere. It's the cowardly runaway Joe who gets the breaks, and finds that for a while money does even buy him love.
The raison d'être of the show, though, is of course Madness's music, a clutch of greatest hits along with a brace of new songs. Here, too, there's some audacity at work. The show crashes without an overture straight into "House Of Fun", followed by a big-production dance treatment of the title number. It looks in serious danger of discharging its biggest guns too soon. Furthermore, these first ten minutes are frankly toe-curling in their cartoon jollity (complete with authentic nutty dance in a chemist's shop). However, this turns out to be a cunning sucker-punch, clearing the air for Firth's more thoughtful narrative. Neither plotting nor characterisation is super-subtle, but for the most part the writer has a way with direct, from-the-heart dialogue which meshes well under Matthew Warchus's direction with the more contemplative numbers such as "One Better Day" and the sole non-original, "It Must Be Love". He also fulfils the obligations of the genre by inserting a Las Vegas wedding as an excuse for big exotic cavorts on "Night Boat To Cairo" and "Wings Of A Dove" early in Act Two.
Philip Bateman and Steve Sidwell know better than to turn a winning rock formula into over-orchestrated stage-musical sludge; some numbers get rearranged, but usually only in reprise after the band's authentic ska-influenced template has been faithfully followed on first airing. They also dare to insert brief, uncredited quotations (sometimes as brief as four bars) from numbers not included on the main song list like "Michael Caine".
This fidelity isn't matched in the singing, and it proves a weakness. One of the assets of Madness frontman Suggs's delivery was that he never adopted a vocal persona; he let the lyrics do that work. Here, it's noticeable that when characters try to sing in character, that extra layer often rubs up against the songs and detracts from them. Ian Reddington, as Joe's dead father, the narrator-figure, gets the best deal here, as he is called upon to add least embellishment to the original lyrical material.
Michael Jibson is not the most photogenic of casting choices as Joe. This is to the good, but although he acts well, he labours in song, his voice acquiring a brassy blare at volume and a crow's rasp in the lower register. (He also pulls off some breathtakingly speedy costume changes between one version of Joe and the other.) Julia Gay, making her professional début, adds just enough depth to Sarah, who as written is largely a mere plot device.
It's a bewilderingly erratic show, with deceptively complex plus points and jaw-dropping negatives in broadly equal measure (not least a craven cop-out of an ending after the manner of the legendary Dallas "Man in Shower" betrayal). It sets out to provide the fun one expects from the Camden scamps, but not to do so in an unthinking, straightforward way, and in end I reckon its batting average is probably high enough to satisfy both Madness fans and a number of more speculative visitors. Sadly, though, I fear the saxophonist on flying wires during the encore may have been a one-off for the press night.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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