The West End smash-hit musical Our House returns to Belgrade Theatre this November, 15 years on from its original launch date, and 35 years since the release of the title track by Madness. With this Olivier-award winning show back out on tour and heading for Coventry, we spoke to the creative team behind the madness, including Composer Suggs and Writer Tim Firth about the enduring success of this spectacular show.
When you first launched Our House in 2002 did you ever imagine it would still be playing to packed houses?
Suggs: I couldn’t imagine it’d still be playing, not really, but anything is incremental. I remember when we did a gig with Madness way back when and 40 people turned up and I remember thinking we’d made it then. But it’s a real privilege in the same way it is for Madness to still be playing. It’s a real privilege that people still love the Our House musical. I’ve been to see a few musicals recently and some really good ones, but I don’t think many of them are better than Our House. [Laughs] So, in answer to your question, no – I’m not surprised it’s still going.
Tim: What’s great about the fact that it still is on is the fact that there’s something in the story that speaks to continuous generations. This was never a musical that was locked in time and that was what was so terrific and has consistently proved to be terrific about the music – that I always felt that the songs of Madness existed outside time, even though they started during the big ska movement when I was a kid. The songs were written slightly to the left of that. They were influenced by that but they were not bound by it so consequently they still play, they’re still used, the band still tours and not for no reason – genetically they have a longevity to them. So here we are with kids rediscovering the Madness songs, rediscovering the catalogue, 10 or 15 years later – which is fantastic.
Tim, what was it about Madness’ music that made it ripe for a musical?
Tim: I’ve always said that from the moment I got the first phone call I said ‘That’s the only one that I can absolutely see working’ because I knew that they were a band who spent as much time on their lyrics as they did at the piano and the guitar. There was, I suspected, a musical buried in all of those lyrics – like you were looking at a mosaic of a story that had been shattered over six or seven albums. And it proved to be true. I wanted to find the musical that they didn’t know they’d written.
Suggs, did a Madness musical feel like a good fit?
Suggs: Yeah, we’d been talking about it for some time. We weren’t unaware of the fact our songs are quite narrative and we’d even sort of dabbled ourselves with the obvious – you know, we wrote songs about going to school, we wrote songs about your first girlfriend, we wrote songs about living in the house in the street you were brought up in. But we found it much more difficult than we realised and that’s when Tim got the phone call. It’s a very different discipline to writing songs and writing albums. We always tried to write albums that had some sort of narrative arc, for want of a better pretentious phrase, but to try and fit that together into a story that actually made a lot of sense… I always remember Tim saying right at the beginning ‘I don’t want it to feel like we’ve dropped the songs into scenes just because we need a bit of music, I want the songs to drive the story and we shall make the story fit around those songs’. It was a really incredible process to watch unfold.Tim: There is a Madness musical that you could have done, which would just be seven nutty guys turning up and going nutty for two hours. But the truth was that, even there’s this thing that Madness were the nutty band, they weren’t. The videos were full of comedy and full of wit but the songs were full of purely wit, which is a very different thing. They were bright and intelligent, the lyrics were funny and full of different colour, so I always thought there was a much deeper, much more interesting, funny but also emotional story to be had. It’s one of the things I’m still most proud of because I look at the musical and think ‘Yeah, we found something that was always there’.
What inspired the storyline?
Tim: I took all the lyrics, all of the songs, and spread them around the floor and read all of them over a period of three or four days and found there were a lot of songs about duality – it’s about this and there and the opposite, the sun and the rain… They were there all the way through so there was something that was kind of niggling me about a dual story, a story that had two sides to it. When I thought ‘You can do I Like Driving In My Car and it’s a Morris Minor but it’s also a Bentley or a Jag” I then thought ‘We’ve got a two-channel story here’.
Suggs, is there anything of you in the character of Joe Casey?
Suggs: An interesting thing that Tim did is that he spent quite a lot of time with us, just hanging out – I couldn’t even say interviewing us but just hanging out and chatting as he was starting to advance this idea. If you wanted to know anything about Madness you’d do what Tim does, which is listen to the songs. The interviews we did were pretty much irrelevant compared to the amount of truth that’s in all those songs. There is stuff about going to borstal, there is stuff about stealing things, there’s still about love, there’s stuff about happiness and sadness and pathos basically. So I feel there a bit of me in Joe and I feel there’s a bit of every member of the band in Joe because the whole story of Joe is that you’ve got all these choices and crossroads coming along the way and we all had those in our band.
Tim: The truth is that the only point of writing a musical is for characters to sing things that they can’t say and what Suggs said is true – you can say things in interviews and you can say things in a pub over a Guinness but what you say in your songs is very different. They’re defined and sculpted moments of thought that maybe you wouldn’t say. They’re barings of your soul, if you like, and even though they’re funny and witty and they may seem to be universal they’re incredibly personal things. In a way the songs were always saying what maybe the writers didn’t say publicly, which is why they’re precious.
How do you account for the success of the show?
Suggs: [Laughs] Because it’s brilliant! I’ve been to see a lot of shows and I’ve seen a lot of shows by pop bands, which will remain nameless, where you can really feel the songs have been dropped clumsily into scenes because they were hits. With Our House there’s so much depth, so much intensity, so much pathos – which is a word I learnt from Neil Tennant and which, by the way, means happiness and sadness in equal measures, I’ve now discovered. It’s also a very human story and a very real story, which I think is difficult to do. Well, I don’t know if it’s difficult to do in a musical but I haven’t seen very often in a musical reality in that context that I think Tim got in Our House.
Tim: I think there is a sense that the musical feels as though it owes more, I hope, to Blood Brothers than it does to Mamma Mia! It’s a very different beast. It’s a tale that can be told with just a piano; it requires nothing else. If you invest in the story, if you invest in these characters – which I hope you do – then you really want them to come good and you are moved by them. You’re not just dazzled by the spectacle of the show. That’s what a musical, for me, is about. I’m not an unavowed fan of musicals. I think they’re the best and worst that theatre can be and when they are the best it’s because you find the music is allowing you as the character to do something you couldn’t do in just a play. The worst is when you’re just throwing music and spectacle at it and hope the audience is dazzled by the spectacle.
How does it feel when you’re in the theatre seeing audiences have such a great time?
Tim: It’s very special.
Suggs: And extremely moving. For us, it’s not like we’ve never had a good reaction to our music before being performers but to see it in that context was really moving for us for sure.
Tim: It must be because as a writer of songs to suddenly be given a different standpoint and a different viewpoint when normally you’re stood looking out at the audience having a good time, to move to the side and watching the audience having a good time and watching this refraction of your songs being sung by other people and also in a different way. It can be very hard to play with these songs and not all songs can do this because they don’t have the strength in them, but these songs can overlay, they can be slowed down, they can become parts of other songs so actually you don’t just just get this march past of hit after hit after hit. These songs redefine themselves and become part of other songs.
Suggs: [Laughs] ‘It’s time for your tea Fernando!’ [Sings] ‘Oh Fernando!’ Naming no names.
Tim: What was the delight for me was sitting at a piano, then going back to the guys and saying ‘Have you heard what happens to My Girl if you play it like this, if you put The Sun And The Rain together with Tomorrow’s Just Another Day?’. [To Suggs] Unusually you had a very corporate writing structure, didn’t you, because people would write with other people and it wasn’t just one person writing everything. The mindset was such that these songs unexpectedly linked in to each other. They joined. It was very special.
Tim, you have two shows in the West End and two shows going on tour in the UK. How does it feel to be one of the UK’s most prolific musical theatre writers?
Tim: Musicals were always what I wanted to do. I grew up listening to them and I got slightly sidetracked into writing plays and films. Like I’ve said, for me musicals aren’t universally great. Sometimes they’re very lazy and I never want my stuff to be that – I want it to use music, to really use music, not just have music in it, because music is a catalyst and it accelerates the narrative and it means that you can say many, many things much more quickly than you can in a straight play. So for me it’s the most exciting medium to be in. I would happily spend the rest of my life doing this.
Suggs, all the songs in the show must be dear to your heart, but do you have a favourite reinterpretation?
Suggs: When the show actually opened it did seem seamless and it’s hard to separate them now because there are so many that cross over. There are four or five times in the show where songs cross over and it’s almost unnoticeable to somebody who wouldn’t know those songs but it happens a lot. It Must Be Love is a great one, where there’s narrative while the song is playing intercut between the boy and the girl. It happens a lot and I couldn’t say there’s a favourite for me. There’s a lot of great moments of that.
We hear the show has been performed in prison…
Suggs: Last year my daughter was involved in a charity called The Pimlico Opera and put on shows in prisons and she suddenly announced to me, unbeknownst to me, that they’d put me up because they said they wanted to do a version of Our House. So I was in Belmarsh, in the young offenders’ prison, for six weeks working with a lot of kids who have never obviously done anything like this before and have very rarely been encouraged to do anything in their lives. And they’re thinking ‘A musical? What am I doing here?’ The first couple of weeks we’re literally just trying to convince them it was worth even trying, you know, because they felt like they were being shown up in front of their mates. But by the end of it, you know, their families and themselves were really moved by the whole thing, which I thought was the greatest compliment to the show because these are kids who are in prison and this story is about making the right and wrong decisions in your life and they were moved by it. And that was the most moving thing, for me, that ever happened to me within the process with this show.
Have you appeared in the show yourself?
Suggs: Yes, I have appeared in the show myself. I played the Dad for a month or so, who is a kind of ghostly character who looks down on what’s going on around him and is trying to give his son Joe some direction about the fact his own life went completely wrong – which is a very bizarre feeling for me because I was the father of a lot of these songs and I was trying to direct them to go in the right direction and lo and behold they did. As for appearing in the show, it’s a very terrifying experience and a very humbling experience. The discipline of being in a band is very different. The discipline of being in a band is arguing about what trousers you’re going to wear, smoking a few fags, then going on stage. The discipline of being in a musical is rehearsing for months on end, twisting your ankle and being told you still have to go on stage anyway. And every afternoon being re-directed by the director over the slightest mistake you made the night before. It’s a constant reach for perfection every night and a very interesting discipline, then still within that keeping the joy and feeling of the whole thing. It was a very interesting process for me.
Do you have any advice for the actor playing the role of the Dad?
Suggs: Be yourself is the obvious thing. The Dad character is one of the more kind of relaxed parts really because he is separated from everything that is going on and he’s just trying to give out advice, pretty forlornly actually. So I think it’s a try-and-be-yourself kind of part.
Tim: I think that’s true. The story of Joe’s Dad is that of a kind of slowly diminishing membrane between him and his son and for anybody who’s had kids or been in a family where kids have played a part you know it’s something to do with gradually sometimes in your life feeling that you would like to be able to reach out and actually make contact with your children that life has denied you. And that’s his journey gradually, that what he does makes that membrane thinner until at the very end it’s almost so thin that he can touch it.
How does it feel to be called a national treasure?
Suggs: Cor blimey, that’s bizarre, isn’t it? I think it would only really work for us if they put us on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square dressed as clowns.
And we just have to ask, growing up was your house in the middle of your street?
Suggs: [Laughs] The one I’m living in at the moment is, yeah, because it’s much more difficult to burgle if you’ve got a house in the middle of the street. You’ve got a lot of back gardens to climb over. Bit of good advice for you there if you’re looking to buy a new house.
Tim, you’ve said about Madness: “They came from London but they spoke to every corner of the nation”. Do you think that’s why Our House is such a hit around the country?
Tim: I don’t come from London. I’m a tourist, I’m a visitor and a regular visitor, but I come from the North-West of England and the truth is the songs weren’t about London. They were set in London but they were about growing up, they were about family and heart and home and hearth. In a way they were as relevant to me growing up in the North-West of England as they were to anybody in London. That’s again part of the reason that they’ve lasted the way that they have. I’ve said it many times but it’s extraordinary the degree to which I have not got sick of these songs because I’ve listened to them more than the band have and still if Our House comes on the radio I wouldn’t switch it off.
With this new tour, what do you hope audiences will feel when they leave the theatre?
Tim: ‘I want to come again’.
Suggs: Quite right! I do believe – and it’s another cliché but it’s true – that it is the sort of show where there’s so much going on it’s hard to take in the first time. You can watch it and enjoy it and listen to the songs and do all that stuff you do with any musical, then you can go back and you get another layer and another layer. I’ve watched it a lot of times and I’d say we get asked 20 or 30 times a year if people can put on amateur productions. I try and see a few of them if I can and, a bit like Tim with my songs, I never tire of seeing the work that he’s done with our songs. It’s got endless depth, I think.
Our House runs on the Main Stage at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry from Weds 8 – Sat 11 Nov. Tickets are available now priced from £22.50 by calling the Belgrade Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk.