New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
12 September - 5 October, then touring the UK until 23 November
Our House is by no means a household name when it comes to musicals, rather unfairly it seems. The show first hit the West End in 2002 to mixed reviews, but bagged the 2003 Oliver Award for Best Musical, and went on a national tour from 2008-9. Critic Mark Shenton has called it the best jukebox musical since Mamma Mia! as well as the most underrated – and now a new national tour by the New Wolsey Theatre Company is aiming to change that. Judging by the reaction of the audience, the show already has a lot of fans in the home of the company, Ipswich.
Tim Firth's show is based around the songs of ska kings Madness, and follows 16-year-old Joe through two alternative paths through his life, depending on a decision at the beginning of the story. This does make some early scenes a little confusing, as the action shifts rapidly between alternate realities of the plot (marked helpfully by Joe's two different outfits), but it gets into its stride after a while. The relatively small stage has the potential to create difficulties with the complex set – it's a bit different from the show's original home at the Cambridge Theatre, London – but the cast and creative team make the most of the space they have, and in actual fact the concentration of the cast's energy works in the production's favour.
The ensemble musical numbers are definitely the best element of the show. The cast have bags of energy, throwing themselves into the routines with boundless enthusiasm and a huge sense of fun, so songs such as 'Our House', 'Baggy Trousers' and 'Wings of a Dove' have you itching to get up there and join them. There were a few problems with sound balance meaning the lyrics sometimes got lost – although it's hard to tell if this was true for the whole audience, or just for those of us in the balcony – but this didn't harm the overall effect too much. The decisions to cast actor-musicians makes the music blend effortlessly into the show, as backing track and performers become one, really boosting the party atmosphere.
There are more touching scenes too, and Alexis Gerrerd as Joe manages to balance his cocky swagger with vulnerable moments, particularly in his obvious hurt pride and feelings of inferiority at seeing the better life Sarah (Danielle Bowen) has made for herself after leaving him behind. Switching quickly between the two possible lives of his character, not only does he manage the difference in personality with ease, but he has some lightning-quick costume changes that are deservedly greeted with applause. The two double acts of Emmo and Lewis (James Haggie and Alex Spinney) and Billie and Angie (Natasha Lewis and Dominique Planter), Joe and Sarah's loyal friends, provide plenty of comedy – particularly the girls, who are alternately over-excited by Sarah's life or distinctly underwhelmed by Joe's efforts.
The plot is a little flimsy at times: despite the justification within the script, it's hard to believe a 16-year-old would be sent to prison in those circumstances, for example. The Blood Brothers-esque presence of Joe's father is risky but avoids cliché through a strong performance by Sean Needham, who shies away from over-exaggerated mysticality. Parts of the show are a little cheesy, it's true, but these weaknesses are forgotten in the face of the raucous and joyous musical numbers that can't help but put you in a good mood. It's not the most intellectually stimulating of shows – but then who really looks for that in a musical? Showcasing a brilliant cast, Our House is a whole heap of fun and laughter that's certainly good for the soul.