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Review: Our House – The Madness Musical at Hull New Theatre

As a lifelong Madness fan – my first gig was Madness at Brid Spa in 1981, the night before they recorded It Must Be Love – I have somehow so far managed to miss seeing Our House, the musical based on their back catalogue. I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to see the acclaimed original West End run or any of the subsequent national tours. 

How convenient it is, then, that Hessle Theatre chose Our House for their latest production.

A chance, at last, to see how these songs, which have become part of my life as well as embedded in the national psyche, fit in a stage narrative. I grew up in Hessle, so here were two parts of my younger life colliding on the stage of the New Theatre. Any feelings I had of duality, however, must be dwarfed by those of Michael Jibson, the Hessle-born actor who went on to star, most famously, in the UK production of Hamilton. Not only is he now patron of Hessle Theatre – where he started his acting career – he also originated the lead role of Joe Casey in Our House, a performance for which he was Olivier-nominated.

Jibson was in attendance for this first night, indeed, he was sat just a couple of rows in front of me. Both of us enjoying seeing our Hessle/ Madness connections mingle in very different ways.

Duality is also the main driving force of the plot in Our House.

What happens if youthful indiscretion results in diverging paths in life? One way is prison and hard times, the other is freedom but a career based on deceit and corruption.

It’s a canny way of utilising Madness songs, with their youthful nostalgia, gleeful optimism and laddish-yet-poetic lyrics which often depict lives lived close to the edge of criminality. The Sliding Doors-esque plot allows both possibilities to be explored in a very literal multiverse of Madness.

It also supplied the Hessle Theatre production with its biggest headache. The production not only demands near-constant scenery swaps but also a record-breaking 29 costume changes for the lead actor alone. Quite a goal for a group of amateurs to achieve.

But achieve it they do, though, and with aplomb. Connor Wilson – playing Joe Casey – appears, disappears, runs across the stage and seems to be in two places at once without anyone noticing the costume changes or, indeed, the occasions he is replaced by an identical double.

It was Michael Jibson himself (who has the Guinness World Record certificate for the number of costume changes hung in his downstairs lav) leading the applause for the notorious ‘umbrella change’ in the second half when Connor Wilson had to change from ‘Good’ Joe into ‘Bad’ Joe with only a few twirling umbrellas for cover. Full marks to the backstage crew for all they achieved.

Technical challenges aside, the cast had to perform around 20 Madness numbers and hold a complex plot together all while flinging themselves around the stage, emulating the nutty dances made famous by Madness in their legendary pop videos. The main cast and entire ensemble seemed to be having a whale of a time and their exuberance spilled from the stage whenever the tempo rose to the level of moon stomp.

It was the more enthusiastic and intimate parts of the show that provided the most memorable moments. The duet of It Must Be Love, with its simple, understated staging pushed the singing prowess of Connor Wilson and – particularly – Rachel Wheetley (as love interest Sarah) to the fore.

While full ensemble pieces like the desk-spinning, school uniform interpretation of Baggy Trousers showed that Hessle Theatre really is a group effort. 30-plus bodies on stage at once, all giving it their all along to the very best British music has to offer, can only put the appreciative audience in a great mood.

Madness fans may wish to see how songs as seemingly unsuitable to musical theatre – such as Nightboat To Cairo and Driving In My Car – are used in Our House. All I’ll say is that they’ve been crowbarred in with either wit or desperation, depending on your point of view.

Best way to discover how, is to see this production at Hull New Theatre before it finishes on Saturday. Tickets are still available at hulltheatres.co.uk

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