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Our House !

by on 7 April 2022

Yours Truly Madly

Our House! The Madness Musical

by Tim Firth, music and lyrics by Madness

HEOS Musical Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 9th April

Review by Vince Francis

We’re an intrepid bunch, we reviewers.  Take Wednesday.  Opening night for the HEOS Musical Theatre production of Our House.  The rain fell in what my old mate Terry would describe as horizontal stair-rods, greying out the surroundings and driven by a squally wind that devoured umbrellas with contempt.  We watched all this through the window of the restaurant where we were enjoying a pre-show risotto artesanale and a glass of decent d’Avolo Nero, tutted quietly and agreed to give it five minutes before we sallied forth.

However, to business.  HEOS Musical Theatre is a well-established company in the area, having been around since 1911.  Originally called ‘Hanwell and Ealing Operatic Society’, it has, like other similar societies, retained the initials but dropped the overt reference to opera since it tends toward producing stage musicals rather than the more traditional opera or operetta.  HEOS MT has earned a number of NODA awards over the years, which gives an indication of its production values.

Our House is a musical featuring the music of the iconic North London band Madness, who were around in the late Seventies through to the Eighties and who also covered a 1971 Labbi Siffre song, It Must Be Love, which is included in the show and should therefore be credited.  The book is by Tim Firth, whose catalogue includes Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots, both of which related true stories and captured the essence of the people involved, their relationships and dialogue with absolute authenticity. 

Similarly, Madness, who had started out as a Ska revival band, evolved into a band that could portray common experiences and feeling using everyday language, with songs such as Baggy Trousers evoking chaotic school days, My Girl’s Mad At Me, which needs no explanation, and Welcome To The House Of Fun recording with great humour the apprehension of that first experience of purchasing, shall we say … protection, at the chemists.  All of the above feature in the show and bring back fond memories.

Incidentally, for those who may be unfamiliar, “Ska” is a form of music originating in Jamaica around the 1950s and which arrived in the United Kingdom with the Windrush generation.  Simplistically, Ska can be recognised by its use of what’s known as a “walking bass” (think jazz) line over an energetic off-beat rhythm arrangement.  It’s generally accepted to be a forerunner of Reggae, which, again simplistically, is most often recognised by its use of accent on the third beat of a four-beat measure, which I think is called “one drop”. 

But I digress.  The show presents two parallel storylines, reflecting the choices arising from a single incident near the start of the show.  The action reflects the consequences, in both personal development and relationships, on the hero of the show, Joey Casey.  Effectively, we see “good Joey” vs “bad Joey”.  I don’t want to give away too much, as I think this one is worth a look for yourself, but I would say that it’s worth knowing that much at the outset, as I didn’t think the script necessarily made it that obvious – and that’s no reflection on this production.

This production is directed and choreographed by Dawn Wightman.  Busy Lady.  Very talented lady, in my humble opinion.  All of the principals were clearly confident, comfortable and, what’s more, believable in their roles.  The nature of the dialogue is natural realism, which can be hard to achieve, but which can also allow genuine chemistry to be nurtured and I certainly feel this is the case here.  There is an authenticity to the relationships within the groups of friends, on the one hand Joey Casey (Oliver McLaughlin), Emmo (Chris Prior) and Lewis (Richard Nolder) and on the other Sarah (Jenny Yoxall), Billie (Gina Ackroyd) and Angie (Gemma Hunt). 

Joey and Sarah feature heavily and need to demonstrate differences in character according to which storyline is being explored.  Oliver and Jenny achieve this with seeming ease and the support from their respective circles matches that.

Chris Yoxall takes the role of Dad, or, more accurately, the ghost of Dad, appearing at relevant moments, either acting as Joey’s conscience, or providing some reflective narration to the audience.  Dad’s back-story is tragic in that he served a prison sentence and, at the time the action is set, he has passed away.  Chris is more than capable of holding the stage on his own and does so here, firstly with the reflective Simple Equation and then at various stages throughout, as the spirit at the shoulder of Sarah, Joe and even the company as a whole.  One Better Day in Act II stands out particularly. 

Anne Murphy is also worth a mention here, too, playing Kath, Joey’s mother.  Anne captures that tension between anxiety and assertiveness inherent in parenthood but which is accented in Kath’s situation.  It is, I think, one of those roles that can either disappear or be overplayed, but Anne gets the balance right.

In terms of choreography, for my money, the chorus takes the glitter-ball in this show.  That’s not to say others are in any way weak, they aren’t.  But large chorus numbers are a key feature of stage musicals and can be a bit of a nightmare.  This chorus nails it.  Well-drilled and confident, they use the space fully, execute with gusto and, in an important consideration with large numbers of bodies on stage, get off elegantly and quickly.  There is an arch nod to Who Will Buy? from Oliver! in the second act, which even includes a random baritone running across the stage intoning “Ripe, Strawberries, Ripe” …  Made me chuckle, anyway. 

Dawn clearly knows her cast and the space well enough to exploit all available advantages and it shows.  In this production, chorus numbers are used to cover one or two quick changes and trick appearances, again, very slickly – if that’s a word.  You know what I mean.  Big “well done” there. 

The costumes are contemporary, with a little tasteful showgirl bling in places and wholly appropriate to the script. 

Musical Director Janette Hutchinson brought out the best in all performers, I felt.  The show features various combinations of duets, trios and quartets, etc., which can be quite demanding on performers, in terms of holding their line in tricky harmonies, but where there is a cast such as this who are confident, capable and enthusiastic, the audience can sit back and soak up these features. 

I did have one minor niggle, though.  It seemed to me that some of the livelier numbers were a little slower than I remembered them.  It may be that the score dictates a tempo or, possibly that some agreement has been necessary for choreographic or dialogue purposes, or it may, of course, be that I’m entirely wrong – and Ska was never written with a conductor in mind, so that doesn’t help, but certainly I felt the cast could take the pace if it’s set and some of the quick-fire dialogue cues would benefit. 

Rob Luggar’s lighting is nicely atmospheric and sympathetic to the action taking place.  There were a couple of instances where an actor wandered off his or her mark and out of light, but they have no doubt already had that note.  Visually, the overall design works well, with lots of brightness and colour on the upbeat numbers and a more muted effect when appropriate. 

Danny Tigg’s sound plot is effective, with everyone being heard when they need to be and not drowned out by the very capable band – or heard off-stage.

Overall, this was an excellent and genuinely entertaining first night, so heartfelt congratulations to all.  There are, as there always is, a couple of wrinkles to iron out, but I’m confident that will happen quickly and I wish HEOS all the very best for a successful run.

A definite “Go, see” from yours truly.

Vince Francis, April 2022

Photography by Carey Reese

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