Our House, the new Madness musical which opened at the Cambridge this week, follows in a long line of high profile musicals based on the back catalogues of pop bands. Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You have been big commercial hits, not necessarily with the blessing of the critics. Writer Tim Firth tells Laura North what makes Our House different from the others.
Tim Firth, who has written the book for the musical, is insistent that Our House is not an opportunity to reel off a parade of Madness hits. Mamma Mia!, which really started off the trend for the pop musical, is a glorious example of how songs can be crow-barred in with gleeful irony. One character says, when her targeted man indicates that domestic life isn't for him, ''If you change your mind/I'm the first in line,'' before launching into Take A Chance On Me. "You can get away with that with other musicals. Mamma Mia! has a different ambition as a show which is in kilter with the spirit of the band. Abba were a fun glam pop band and that's what the show is and that's why it worked." Madness cannot be described as a glam pop band. Without a cat-suit or a pair of sequined flares in sight, the band were based in Camden and led by front-man/wide-boy Suggs. In the eighties they trucked up an impressive number of hit singles with subjects as varied as Michael Caine and buying condoms. Although renowned as the 'nutty' band, Firth believes that Madness were remarkably rooted, their songs grounded in home and heart, family and rites of passage: a musical that tried to build itself around the music, shoehorning in the hits, would not do the band justice. "If I thought it was going to be the songs that carried it, I would never have taken it on in the first place. I wasn't there to stitch together a load of songs or to just be the orchestrator of a big fly-past of great tunes."
"I wasn't there to stitch together a load of songs or to just be the orchestrator of a big fly-past of great tunes."
The plot revolves around a North London boy who commits a petty crime on the night of his 16th birthday to impress his girlfriend. It goes terribly wrong and, in a Sliding Doors style plot, he has the choice of two paths: give himself up to the police or make a run for it. The musical follows the consequences of each decision. Inevitably, running away rewards him with financial success; going to the police brings compensation in the form of moral integrity. The plot continuously switches between the two stories to the extent that Joe, the lead character, has to change from a tracksuit to an Armani suit in eight seconds. Firth looked to the songs for inspiration, spending three weeks with the back catalogue of the band to discover whether there was a musical in there: "I was looking for a story hidden in the songs." The idea for the dual story-line sprung in part from the song Driving In My Car, which reached number 4 in the charts in 1982. "I had the idea of playing Driving In My Car and seeing the car when it was 'not quite a Jaguar' and then again, a couple of minutes later, when it was a Jaguar." The lyrics are illustrated on stage with a battered Morris Minor which, fantasmagorically, ends up flying in a filmed sequence "as good as anything in the new Harry Potter film or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", according to the Daily Mail's Michael Coveney: a gleaming new Jaguar replaces it.
Firth's search for a story within the songs was aided by the narrative value of Madness' lyrics. "The songs are little narrative stories, they come from a narrative tradition which is drawn out of Ian Drury, the Kinks, Craig Davis, Squeeze." The songs tell various stories: Shut Up is about a man involved in a robbery (It wasn't me either, I'm just his mate / He told me to stand here and watch the gate); Cardiac Arrest is an account of a business man who has a heart attack on his way to work; or in My Girl, a boyfriend doesn't understand why his girlfriend is upset with him. Although not theatrical in the same way as Queen songs (take The Show Must Go On for example), Firth reckons that this narrative quality, together with the vocal arrangements and different sections, means the songs have immense potential for dramatisation. "The songs are structured like mini-musicals: a lot of the songs are musicals in their own right really."
"I told the band where we needed new songs and suddenly I've got nine new songs to choose from."
In his dedication to avoid "a big fly-past of great songs", he has even left out some of his favourites. "There's some great songs that I love which I haven't included, because I'm not just going to stick things in for the sake of having them in there. I didn't get Uncle Sam and Waiting For The Ghost Train in, which are great songs in their own right. If the songs didn't fit the show then they haven't gone in." He does admit that there's plenty of material, however, so he was never stuck for choice. The band even wrote new songs on request, making Firth the lucky owner of a kind of personal Madness jukebox. "I told the band where we needed new songs and suddenly I've got nine new songs to choose from." Two new songs have been included in the score – Sarah's Song and Simple Equation.
"I've done nothing like this at all. A massive multi-million pound production is new to me."
Our House is Firth's first attempt at writing a musical, and he certainly picked a big challenge for his debut. "I've done nothing like this at all. I did a play with music about three years ago, but a musical of this scale – a massive multi-million pound production – is new to me." With a cast of 26 and is a range of scenery and effects, including the car and a set that switches colour, the production has cost around £2.5 million. Firth, who has worked extensively across the media of television, film and theatre, says, "It's closer to a movie than a play. The amount of people working on it, the ramifications of every change that you make, the scale and complexity of it, the detailed planning, is all like a movie." The distance between this and a play is vast. His most recent play, The Safari Party, was produced at the Scarborough Joseph Theatre earlier this year. "That was three sets and three acts. I look back on that time now and it's so beautifully simple, so uncomplicated. With this, I watched people rigging up projections and flying and god knows what, and thought, I did a play earlier this year with people walking on with cups of tea, and that seemed complicated at the time." Now that he's pulled off a large-scale musical he is eagerly awaiting the quieter times again, with the transfer of The Safari Party to London. "I'm looking forward to revisiting that play in the light of all this when it goes to Hampstead, just to see how it feels."
"My next project after this is sleep."
Scarborough, under the auspices of artistic director Alan Ayckbourn, is a very important venue to Firth, and has been the home for more than one of his premieres. Does he feel that the prolific Ayckbourn is a mentor? "Yes, I would say he probably was. He's been hugely supportive, but he would have been a huge influence even if I'd never met him." Before he arrived at Scarborough, he wrote a play called Heartlands for the Chichester Festival Theatre (directed by Sam Mendes, with whom he went to university), with a dismal theme about child abuse enquiries which had emerged in Northumberland – "It was all a bit heavy for me." An earlier indication of his inclinations towards comedy appeared rather unfortunately in his first ever play, when he was at university. "I tried to write for a theatre company who were very keen for me to write a very serious play about a serious subject, homelessness. I ended up writing a comedy about homelessness because that's actually what I wanted to do. It was all a bit grim." Working at Scarborough helped him find his voice and a style of writing that he is most comfortable with. "There was a great culture of comedy at Scarborough – it was the division in my life when I soon realised that's what I wanted to write." He wrote Neville's Island there, a comedy about a group of business men whose team-building exercise is transformed into a real fight for survival when they are marooned on an island. It proved a huge hit and transferred to the West End, before being made into a television film with Timothy Spall and Martin Clunes.
Comedy is certainly what beckons to him in the future. He has just written a television series, which is currently being filmed with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Set on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, it features Coogan as an embittered former TV star whose fan club invite him on a celebrity cruise and, as Firth so nicely puts it, "he ends up being trapped for a week on a tub of tossers." The filming of the programme itself was subjected to an unexpected and unscripted incident, when the ship hit a reef. "Everybody pretty well ignored it and said it didn't matter. Back in dry dock they discovered it had a 150 metre long gouge down the hull. If it hadn't been a twin hull ship, it would have been listing within ten minutes, and then it would have been lifeboats and everything. What are the chances of that?" Another project in progress is a feature film, and this time it's set firmly on dry land. "Blackball is a comedy about a true story of the bad boy of British bowls. They're filming in Torquay as we speak."
With a television series, two films (the other is Calender Girls with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters), a play transfer and a large scale musical on the go, what's his next project following all this? His answer is understandable: "My next project after this is sleep."