Our House – Venue Cymru

There is more to Our House than first meets the eye. For a start, it is hard to believe that this award-winning musical is now 15 years old. It feels extraordinarily fresh. Billed as “the Madness musical”, its youthful appearance remains, in part, because it is not the biopic that one might expect. Unlike Sunny Afternoon or Million Dollar Quartet for instance, Our House does not tell the story of the 1980s ska/pop band. A character called Suggs is nowhere to be seen. Neither is it a tribute show. Instead, writer Tim Firth (of Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots fame) has created a standalone story that is set to a score of Madness’ hits. Fans of the band may have begun this show bopping away to their well-known songs, but it quickly becomes an engrossing narrative. It tackles the themes of love, family, morality and responsibility in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. It is unexpected, but it works.

Our House does not just tell one story however. Instead, Firth presents two versions of life that play out from one single decision made by Joe Casey. Played with a cheeky cockney charm by Jason Kajdi, Casey decides to impress childhood sweetheart Sarah (Sophie Matthew) on their first date. Breaking into a building site overlooking his home on Casey Street, he attempts to show her the fruits of his grandfather’s labour (whom the street is named after). However, when the police turn up, Joe is faced with the decision to run or give himself up. It is this split-second choice from which the two narratives play out, and to great success. Using various devices to indicate which of the two stories is being played out, once grasped, it isn’t too complicated to follow the events on stage. Primarily, colour is used to note the changes: red and white doors slide across the stage; the lighting is enhanced and dimmed accordingly; and Kajdi himself switches between a white tracksuit and black business suit. It may sound simple, but it is enormously helpful to the watching audience.

In addition to its use as a narrative indicator, the black and white motif used in Casey’s clothing also suggests that Our House is a morality tale of sorts. We have the “good” Joe (who hands himself in) dressed in the white of innocence. We have the “bad” Joe (who evades arrest) clothed in the black of corruption. Yet Firth cleverly unpacks the seeming simplicity of this popular trope in order to make a statement about the unfairness and injustice that exists in human society. We see Joe punished for seemingly doing the right thing and rewarded for doing wrong. He does his time in prison yet, on release, his employment prospects are dire. He undertakes an underhanded action and receives enormous benefits from it. It makes little sense, and it evokes a sense of frustration as a result. It is an emotion that, again, defies one’s expectations. Think of Madness and it evokes cheeky chappies and upbeat tempos. Not exactly protest material.

Firth does not bear down too much on our consciences though. The overwhelming response to Our House is one of joy and pleasure. The choreography is a particular highlight. The school scene is a real delight to witness, and the car journey (to “Driving in my Car”) is wonderfully executed. The cast have such precision and timing that it is nigh-on impossible to find fault. In addition, Britain’s Got Talent winner George Sampson gives a very credible performance as antagonist Reecey. Since coming first in the 2008 contest, Sampson seems to have honed his acting skills and is sure to become (based on this performance at least) a rising star of musical theatre. The same could be said of Matthew too. Her duet with Callum McArdle (Casey’s Dad) on “NW5” is strikingly beautiful.

Our House is a thoroughly entertaining evening of song and dance, full of humour and peppered with poignancy. Like Madness themselves, it possesses much more emotional depth than its surface level suggests. There are great lessons to be learned here beneath the feel good soundtrack. Overall, it is a tremendously good show.

Originally written as part of Venue Cymru’s Young Critics scheme.

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