I saw Madness play live twice. They were fabulous, raucous, and with a touch of Music Hall about them. I am also a veteran of the era when they formed. Their incubation was not seamless. They morphed from what might best be described euphemistically as a “lad” band, through innovative interpretations of traditional Ska and Two Tone , to a band whose lyrics were known verbatim by junior school age children. That trans- generational travel has served their longevity well. Their milieu is the three minute pop song, accessible lyrics, ubiquitous subject matter, and vocalist Suggs’ deadpan delivery. All of which does not necessarily equate with a hit musical, so I approached the night with an ear expectant of familiar songs, and an eye curious as to what I would see.
SCMTC are good at this sort of production, big dance numbers have always been their strength, and with a thirty plus cast, they can handle what is needed. Great singing is not a requirement to sing Madness songs, attitude and enthusiasm is. Fortunately, you will never find this company lacking in that department. The winner of an Olivier Award, “Our House “ was written by Tim Firth, who also wrote “Calendar Girls”, and was first performed in 2002. It tells the story of Joe Casey ( Matt Branson) who, on the night of his sixteenth birthday, commits a petty crime in a bid to impress the girl of his dreams, Sarah (Sophie Hammond). When the police arrive he faces a life changing decision; does he stay and own up like an honest man, or make his escape and go on the run? The opportunity to perform the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go ?” is surely missed here. Unfortunately, Branson is miscast, looking both too old, and awkward in the part. His love/lust affair with Sarah never convinces.
Joe’s world splits in two, and, in a “sliding doors” moment, two very different paths unfold before him. Whilst offering dramatic possibility, particularly when there are two “Joes” on stage, the narrative can feel a little muddled, as we are offered two very different outcomes for Joe, depending on which decision he had taken. Themes explored include love, family values, growing up, responsibility and dealing with losing the people that shape us, throwing a bit of “Blood Brothers” into the “Sliding Doors” mix.
Ben Addams enjoys playing villain Reecey. Mark Skett is convincing as Joe’s Dad, a part played by Suggs for a time in the original stage show.his performance of “One Better Day” being the solo highlight of the night. Elisa Gorle ( Angie), Chloe Child (Billie) Adam Coulthard (Lewis) and Anil Patel ( Emmo) provide welcome comic relief as two comic double acts. The big production numbers are well handled by choreographer Maggie Jackson, she imaginatively incorporates a “42nd Street” interlude into the middle of a stretched out “Embarrassment” by introducing a female chorus line, sequins and all. Musical Director Sheila Pearson produces an authentic period sound, whilst still offering musical theatre production values. Saxophonist Jen Pollock will have gone home exhausted.
A greatest hits medley opens an instrumental overture before kicking into a storming “Our House”, and from there the musical fun never really stops. Unfortunately the narrative never really gets off the ground. All the songs were written by the band, with the exception of Labbi Siffre’s, “It Must Be Love”. “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” and “One Better Day” are great, superbly crafted, songs, even if at the time of release they were not the best sellers. English, laconic and wry, they are strong counter-points to the obvious rabble rousers “Our House” “Baggy Trousers and “Embarrassment”. When in doubt, “Our House” appears again to keep things moving musically.
There are some issues with the production. Vocal cues were routinely missed, some of the chorus harmonies were off key, “NW5” was so dreary that even the cast started to read newspapers, a coffin which appeared at the end of the show probably contained the libretto, and the set piece dance number around “Sun and the Rain” had the dancers in long loose fitting trousers, masking some well drilled dance moves, in a bizarre, ill-conceived routine. Costuming was anachronistic and inconsistent. I also wondered whether the Director had ever seen Madness live or watched a live recording. The majestic “Night Boat to Cairo” was emasculated into an “It Aint Half Hot Mum” pastiche. the eponymous call to arms being uttered with all the confidence of a year seven child asking a sixth former where the toilets were on their first day in Big School. it cried out for the saxophonist to perform from the balcony in full view, instead she was hidden in the pit. Equally, for the finale of “One Step Beyond”, the “Hey You-, don’t watch that watch this…” intro was ditched, robbing it of its build up.
The main problems with the show goes beyond any production. Madness songs require a central focussed narrative. When the vocal duties are shared out, the strength of the songs drains out.
But the songs and singing were rousing, nostalgic and entertaining , once the cues had ben picked up. No fan of Madness, or anyone who listened to the radio in the 1980’s, will leave the auditorium disappointed. But it is the songs that carry the night, with Director Faye Easto doing a valiant job at driving a libretto which often has a tangential relationship with the music. The show is still a bit of a mess, despite the Company’s best efforts and it is not difficult to see why the West End run did not complete twelve months. Fortunately, the finale is just for fun with the Company blasting through “One Step Beyond” and the other best bits with conviction and commitment, brio and elan, but it was too little, too late to save the show. Runs till 21st October.