It might be love

Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 14 – August 21

Before Oasis triumphed the British working-class, there was Madness, the prominent ska Camden Town band of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who, if you are of a particular vintage, you may know from their appearance in two episodes of the cult BBC sitcom “The Young Ones”. Beyond this, the prominent band is known for its ‘nutty boys’ fusion of traditional Jamaican ska music with elements of punk rock and new wave, resulting in a run of hits and madcap music videos… all of which are captured in the award-winning jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of the chart-topping group.

In Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, the musical starts strongly with two of the group’s biggest hits, ‘House of Fun’ and ‘Our House’, which serve to orient the audience to the story through well appropriated lyrics. ‘House of Fun’ is about coming of age, telling the story of a boy on his 16th birthday trying to buy condoms at a chemist and it is here where we meet the lad in question, Joe (Oliver Childs). With a book written by playwright Tim Firth, the story then follows the life of the schoolboy from that night when he makes the decision on a whim to break into a building development overlooking his North London home to impress his girlfriend, Sarah (Kyra Stratford). When the police arrive, Joe has to make a decision that will change his life. Overseen and narrated by Joe’s father (Shaun King), events are shown through a “Sliding Doors” lens as Joe embarks upon two alternative paths of seven years from that fateful night, that of the ‘good’ Joe who gives himself up and the ‘bad joe’ who leaves Sarah to escape. The ensuring tales of love, loss and growing up are explored as he navigates right and wrong to the music of Madness. It is a combination of the silly and serious enhanced by lyrics that often make thoughtful observations on the everyday concerns of working-class London, making it, at times, more of a morality tale than a romantic comedy.

The very talented Childs gives an authentic portrayal of the story’s likeable protagonist, realising the two Joe Caseys with a consummate skill that means he is just as believable as the smooth-talking and shallow scammer as he is when playing the unfortunate underdog loner Joe. His voice works well for Madness songs like ‘The Sun and The Rain’, and he is full of enthusiastic energy, in spite of the many characterisation changes and quick costume swaps needed in accordance with his alternative realities. Indeed, in Act Two, he deftly takes us from jubilation to desperation in the blink of an alternative reality eye. There is also an endearing comradery evident between Joe and his friends and surrogate brothers Emmo (Oliver Catton) and Lewis (Devon Henshaw). Catton, in particular gives a charming performance as the simple-minded but good-natured and boisterous Emmo.

Natalie Mead is another standout as Joe’s loyal and loving Irish Catholic mother Kath. Like Stratford as Joe’s kind and gentle girlfriend Sarah, she showcases strong vocals in Act Two’s dramatic moments. The entire ensemble is infectious in its energy, making Act One’s closer, ‘Baggy Trousers’ a highlight. The ode to school days is an organised mayhem of rolling school desks and high-energy rebellion of the “Matilda” ‘Revolting Children’ sort.

The use of a half circular revolve stage as part of the set allows for the efficient inclusion of different locations (such as when Joe takes others driving in his ‘not quite a Jaguar’ car) and swift set piece transitions allows scenes to progress smoothly with quick and clever changes showcasing the two stories’ scenarios. Indeed, Kiel Gailer and Tim Pierce’s design is quite clever in its realisation, working with Fiona Black’s lighting design which themes the respective stories and Frances Foo’s detailed costume design, which coordinates the colour palettes of each story, even including 2 Tone label black and white check motifs.

Directed and choreographed by Ava Moschetti, with assistance from the company’s artistic director John Boyce, the show includes many vibrant numbers the platform the band’s enthusiastic signature distinctive jerky dance moves. And with the accompaniment of the accomplished band (Musical Director Gabby Fitzgerald), it is all a lot of fun. Even the quirky little love song of ‘It Must Be Love’ is given a delightful duet realisation.

While “Our House” may explore themes of love, loss, family, responsibility and growing up, it is a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, including a number of nods to Madness music videos, including ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ red fezzes and an ‘Our House’ bearded housewife. Clearly, this is an easy show at which to have such a very good time, even if its Madness songs often sound quite similar. Despite winning the 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, it received lacklustre critical reviews, which may explain why it is so rarely seen on stage. (The rescheduled 2021 Arts Theatre production represents its Queensland premiere). Yet, it is definitely worth a visit. Not only will you be supporting the iconic Brisbane Arts Theatre in its much publicised face of an uncertain future, but you may be surprised at how many Madness songs you actually know, beyond just those from “The Young Ones” … and the result might just be love.