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posted/updated: 18 Oct 2019 -
Our House
By Tim Firth. Music and lyrics by Madness
society/company: Bromley Players (directory)
performance date: 16 Oct 2019
venue: Bob Hope Theatre, Eltham, London SE9 5TG
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

All photos: Jonny Faint

Warning: Long review!

I’ve seen Our House so many times now that, I rarely find myself able to just sit back and enjoy any performance without focusing more and more on the myriad of intricacies involved in producing such a challenging show. This week, it is the turn of Bromley Players to bring Tim Firth’s demanding ‘Madness’ musical to its audiences, at Eltham’s Bob Hope Theatre in London. I actually found myself quite envious of those audience members who were watching it for the first time.

Our House is so difficult to get right on all levels. Plus, when you’re an amateur company, where everybody is usually involved in a non-related ‘day job’ of one kind or another, to put on a credible production of any musical is a magnificent feat in itself. Bromley Players, under the co-direction of Ian Chapman and Robin Kelly, have obviously worked very hard to bring a commendable production of this show to the stage. Also, the fact that amateur companies are rarely able to play anywhere for more than a week (four nights in this case) is almost heartbreaking and completely disproportionate to the time and effort put in by all involved.

Bob Hope Theatre’s stage isn’t all that large, so I was surprised to see a cast of around thirty listed in the programme, but there is never any crowding or overstaging. I was even more surprised when, during one of the first numbers on opening night, Ian Chapman (co-director) appeared onstage dressed as a priest (“Father wears his Sunday best.”)… Apparently at 3am that morning, one of the cast was admitted to hospital – well, what’s a co-director (and society chairman) to do? That’s what I call leading from the front!

One of the immediately impressive things I noticed is how the entire production has been put together without borrowing any choreography or ideas from the original West End or subsequent touring productions. Choreographers Rochelle Bisson and Laura Whittingham deserve plenty of credit for capturing a feel-good-yet-raw urban spirit throughout. This is encapsulated in the big routine for Baggy Trousers where there is an undeniably anarchic atmosphere surrounding the myriad of school-leavers. Having said that, other big numbers such as Wings of a Dove, would benefit from more movement and energy and is fairly staid in comparison to the routine set to Madness’s famous school hit.

I may as well get my three moans out of the way…

I would have liked to hear Hannah Ockendon-Rowe’s seven-piece band turned up by at least several notches as the musical punch required for this show is fairly tame throughout – however, this is possibly a technical failing of the venue’s sound equipment and, therefore, out of BP’s hands. But the truth is, sadly, as well as the quiet drums and bass, I could hardly hear the all-important saxophone throughout; it’s almost as if it hadn’t been mic’d on the night I attended…. and One Step Beyond doesn’t really work without a sax.

Another sound issue on opening night was with the head-mics. If you’ve only got four nights to nail a show, you MUST be prepared and ready for opening night. Not only did Chris Hopkins’ (Joe Casey) mic completely cut out at the end of the first act, many, many lines of dialogue were frustratingly also missed due to head-mics levels not being cued in time. Hopefully these sound issues will be resolved as Saturday approaches, but…

The last moan surrounds the plot itself. When Joe Casey breaks into a building site to show off to his girlfriend, Sarah, his life splits in two after the Police turn up; the ‘good’ Joe stays by Sarah and gives himself up to the Police, while the ‘bad’ Joe runs away and leaves Sarah to make her own getaway. Like Sliding Doors, the subsequent plot swaps between both outcomes, showing us which Joe eventually prevails (can you guess?). With the same actor playing both Joe’s, the show needs to clearly differentiate which ‘version’ of Joe is onstage at any one time. Good Joe is usually dressed in saintly white, while bad Joe dresses in black (as is done in this production). I obviously know the plot backwards, so I know what’s happening but, when I asked several Our House newbies during the interval if they understood what was going on, none of them had a clue.

Chris Hopkins, who plays both ‘Joes’ gives an outstanding performance and full credit to Chris and his offstage dressers for doing such a great job in changing so fast. He puts in a great performance in terms of characterisation, energy and singing and cannot be faulted in anyway. Likewise, Ellie Mulhern’s ‘Sarah’ is also played very naturalistically and, she too, gives a good vocal performance.

Both pairs of friends are well-portrayed with plenty of rehearsal time clearly given to their all-important and funny characterisations. Joe’s friends are gorgeously gormless while Sarah’s are champion chavs – and I like the way they realistically drop their ‘T’s. I’ve seen both sets of friends played very middle class and it simply does not work. Shane King as the ghost of Joe’s dad is reliably solid and Stephanie Gironi gives an authentic Irish ‘mum’. Michael Flanagan gives an interesting bad-boy Reecey whose reputation appears to precede him. Menace doesn’t always need to look like a skinhead – as is often the case with this character – and I definitely got more of an unpredictable Robert Carlisle from Trainspotting. I like it!

The chorus also works well and has been well-drilled to deliver what sometimes looks like chaos but is anything but. Finally another word of praise should go to James Priddle for the impressive projections throughout – including the video backdrop to Driving in my Car.

There are so many people involved in shows like this all over the country, and it’s worth stopping to remember this from time to time. You simply cannot do a review justice as you have to leave so many people out. But that’s why we do it, I guess. Hang on… why do we all do it again?

It’s all kicking off in Eltham, so get yourself down there before it’s all over on Saturday night!

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