Above: George Sampson and Deena Payne (left centre) lead the cast of the new touring production of the Madness musical, Our House
It’s not the best-kept secret in the world that Madness musical, Our House, will always have a special place in our hearts here at Sardines. Now 51, I was at ‘that’ age in the late-70s/early-80s when the whole 2-Tone movement swept the country with a particular nutty ska sound emanating from Camden Town in north London.
Nearly forty years on and the timeless music of Madness is affecting a whole new generation, which is largely down to Tim Firth’s ingenious musical.
This autumn, some fifteen years after the show first opened in the West End at The Cambridge Theatre (before Matilda was even a twinkle in the RSC’s eye) a new production of Our House will tour the country beginning at Crewe on 10th August. Amateur societies have of course been performing the show in their droves for several years now, so if you’ve already produced it, or if it’s on your to-do list, why not see how the professionals handle it?
To impress his girlfriend, on his 16th birthday Joe Casey breaks into a new high-rise development to show Sarah the impressive view. However, when the Police turn up Joe is faced with a life-changing dilemma and his world splits in two. Simultaniously, we follow ‘good’ Joe, who gave himself up, as well as ‘bad’ Joe, who ran off like a criminal without a second thought for the consequences.
With Tim Firth’s clever Sliding Doors-style double timeline, together with the irresistible sound of Madness, the new tour promises great things, not least because it stars BGT winner, George Sampson, who will be busting his moves as bad boy, Reecey. Who can forget when, in 2008, the 14-year-old’s iconic Singin’ In The Rain mash-up won the show’s second series and, in doing so, brought Street Dance to the mass market for the very first time?
I caught up with George and the new Our House team on only their second day in the rehearsal room – where the unique Madness buzz filled the air (groups that have performed Our House will know exactly what I mean).
“We’re only on Day 2 but it already feels like I’ve known everyone for years,” an older 24-year-old George Sampson tells me. “It’s down to the feel-good factor of the music and the Madness lyrics. So, it’s been easy for me to settle in, in fact this is probably the perfect musical for me to jump in and instantly feel confident with as quickly as I have.” George looks a lot older and meaner than the young teenager who won the public’s hearts nearly a decade ago, which is just as well as he prepares to play Reecey, a very nasty piece of work. “It’s a weird one, I don’t know what people see in me but I’m always getting typecast as the bad boy; the mean school bully… ‘George’ll do!’ It just seems to keep happening. But I’ll take it, and in this show Reecey fits that perfectly.” George’s references to typecasting come on the back of a couple of high-profile roles in Waterloo Road (2011) and Emmerdale (2016).
His recently shaved head also goes a long way to supporting the new image but, when I ask him about it, George explains how it’s all part of a well-timed coincidence. “I had a hair transplant just eight days ago which meant that I had to shave my head for the procedure,” he discloses. It turns out that all the head-spinning synonymous with George’s street dance style has taken its toll on the dancer’s scalp. “Ha, ha! We’ve linked them together so well! It needs to stay really short for the duration of the run. The director wanted a shaved head for Reecey – so I said OK, and it’s worked out fine.”
As Reecey, George gets to sing one of the musical’s big dance numbers, Baggy Trousers, so I have to ask how he relates to performing one of Madness’ most iconic songs (which hit the charts thirteen years before he was even born). “I think I was born way after my time when it comes to music,” he says. “Believe it or not I don’t really listen to much modern music as such, and Madness is well within one of my preferred eras. I know that some of the cast who are also young have had to learn the songs for the first time but there are no issues like that on my part. I love a bit of Madness.” And anyone can sing a bit of Madness, right? “In this show they’re not trying to be the best singers. It’s all about the music and the songs, and it’s just a fact that you don’t need to be the best singer in the world to do Madness justice.” Hmmm… where’s Suggs when you need him!
Baggy Trousers is just one number among many in Our House that will hopefully showcase some of Mr Sampson’s famous moves. “Fabian, our choreographer has been really good and more or less accepted that I am what I am,” confirms George. “Obviously the musical is what it is and we have to interpret that and incorporate the way people would dance to ska music but, at the same time, they want a bit of flair, a bit of me, and a few tricks here and there. So it’s been really nice for me to learn about how to dance to the music style and then be able to incorporate my own stuff into the choreography.”
I manage to grab a quick word with Fabian Aloise, the choreographer who George mentions, to find out a little more about the unique style the show traditionally adopts. I also give him a friendly warning that some of his moves are almost certainly going to be copied by amateur societies after the tour. “Ha, ha! Don’t they say that theft is the highest form of flattery?” …is the welcomed reaction. “But I’m actually trying to be reverent to Peter Darling’s original choreography in the West End production and even the first UK tour. Essentially a lot of the steps that he took were what Madness themselves had come up with in their videos, so it’s very difficult to do a Madness musical and NOT incorporate those steps. It would be like doing We Will Rock You without the Radio Gaga arms! When I told Peter that I’d been asked to choreograph the show, he gave me his blessing and hoped it would bring us similar success. If you like… he stole it from Madness… and so on… otherwise we’re left trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Leaving George to eat his lunch for a moment I spot Deena Payne who readers will know as Emmerdale’s Viv Hope, a role she played for eighteen years. Originally a dancer herself, in Our House Deena plays Joe Casey’s, mum, Kath. Since leaving ITV’s Yorkshire Dales, she’s had stints in Calendar Girls and On Tidy Endings in the West End, however, to say Deena is excited on her return to musical theatre would be an understatement. “Rehearsals have just started so, because it’s new, it’s quite tiring and manic. But the energy’s fantastic, and the cast are lovely,” she beams. “I’m loving it because I used to go to Arts Ed, and I was a dancer, and it’s just like stepping into ‘pain’ again, ha, ha. I love it! For me the rehearsals are the best bit. It’s like chewing a toffee when you’re just getting everything out of it. It’s kind of organic, a really nice time, but it is tiring. We’re flat out, from 9.30am until 6pm.”
Deena has come into the production after the previously billed Linda Nolan was forced to withdraw after her recent diagnosis for breast cancer. “That’s the real downer in getting the part, and I’ve wished her well,” she emphasises. “Nobody wants to get a job because somebody else isn’t well. I felt a little awkward coming in, but I won’t let her down.”
When you’re in the bubble of TV soap for eighteen years it appears that the world around you changes somewhat. “The last actual musical I did must have been in 1988-89, and it’s very strange; it doesn’t seem to have changed that much but, at the same time, it has,” explains Deena. “These days, you don’t go to an audition, you go to a ‘meeting’, and the youngsters today are far more grown-up about it; they do their job very well, very professional. I just feel that back in my day people weren’t as professional as dancers. The dancing for this is very modern for my age, but I’m keeping up with what I have to do. There’s a lot of energy in the show!”
Going back to the Madness ‘buzz’ I mentioned earlier, I ask director, James Tobias, firstly if he’s even noticed it, and if so, whether it’s something he can put his finger on? “It’s the most unique thing to witness,” he says in recognition. “There’s so much love – and rightly so – for this show within the industry, that I think the cast are so thrilled just to be part of it. But there’s also something about it that means you can’t help but completely let go and let rip! It’s quite unique to this show. Even now during our lunch hour, they’re all sat together playing games. It’s the weirdest thing. We’ve also got a huge spectrum of people in the show, from brand-new graduates, people who have been in the West End, obviously George and Deena… and they all gelled instantly. There’s a chemistry and camaraderie that I don’t think I’ve ever seen so quickly and strongly on a production before.”
Presumably the idea is for James to transfer that special magic to the stage. “It’s a really high-energy show – in fact it lives and dies on the energy,” he states. “But even though the numbers are very high energy into terms of choreography, the scene work is actually quite human and naturalistic. It’s an amazing script with some really three-dimensional characters which is a gift for a lot of musicals. You don’t always get that. We’re right at the beginning of the rehearsal process and things will obviously develop and change and we move forward, but I’m enjoying just treating them like human beings and creating a real story.”
When you take Our House on, it’s a bit like joining a secret club that only a privileged few are aware of. James knows this only too well and speaks from within the confines of his new membership: “There’s a lot of misconception about the show from people who don’t know it. Some think it’s a Madness biopic which it isn’t at all, and Tim Firth has written an amazing story. It’s a mammoth show, which we’re just finding out as we start to create it. We’re trying to create something very unique and different with it and it’s a wonderful challenge.”
There’s obviously something in the Firth-Madness collaboration that Our House-savvy societies up and down the country will already be aware of. “What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that Madness are incredible storytellers,” offers James Tobias. “Every single song advances the story rather than music which has been crow-barred in for the sake of it. Each song absolutely relates to what’s happening in that moment.
“Madness don’t write soppy love songs, they write about real life, which is why we’re able to take a much more naturalistic approach and a real approach to the characters and their relationships – rather than a more glamorised musical theatre kind of thing. I really do think that audiences are going to be so amazingly and pleasantly surprised when they come to see the show. It’s fun, it’s funny, but it’s also really touching and moving. And normally when you have these larger-than-life musicals they just don’t always have the heart.”
Turning back to our latest cover boy, George Sampson, I can’t help but wind the clock back a bit (see what I did there?) and find out a bit more about his street-dancing path to stardom. “I have had dance training,” he advises. “I milled about for a couple of years, went to different dance classes and picked up different styles, so, although I can say I am trained, I’ve no specific training that counts for anything official. Then I moved on and once I was old enough to do my own thing, at thirteen I went out and took to the streets busking. That didn’t change me in terms of how I danced, it just gave me a streetwise edge and helped me learn how to play to crowds, who weren’t specifically dance crowds; on the street you get whoever is walking past. You have to learn your craft and how to engage an audience very, very quickly.”
The shaven-headed dancer continues: “I had to learn real quick, which I did in Manchester. It gave me a good understanding of what people were going to be like watching me. So I did that for eighteen months and then decided to take it up a notch and enter some competitions.” George did enter the first series of Britain’s Got Talent but was unsuccessful; however, he put that right the following year by winning first place in the live final. What’s more his groundbreaking achievement paved the way for similar acts to follow suit. “Winning it seemed to start a bit of a chain-reaction with Diversity and Flawless coming along after me. I don’t take any credit for their success, but it’s nice to know I was there at the start of it and might have played a part,” he modestly tells me.
Nowadays, it seems that every other act call themselves street dancers. “That’s the difference with being labelled ‘Street Dance’ and being able to dance on the street. You can learn Street Dance in a studio but, for me, a street dancer can take it out on the street and entertain anybody. I only figured that out because I went out on the street and did it. On the other hand you still have to be gifted to be able to pick up and dance certain styles, even if it is in a studio. So it can still come across well on those types of shows.”
Either way, George is adamant he knows exactly what it takes to do well in such scenarios: “For me those shows are about having a talent and being able to put that talent forward with your character, and to do that is actually really hard,” he says, finishing his lunch. “Diversity, who also won BGT, had enormous character within their group which people fell in love with, and they were able to bring that across. But they’d also done bits and bobs; they’ve been in ‘underground battles’ and ‘jams’ and put themselves out there – they weren’t a group formed in a studio.
Also, auditioning for BGT is almost like being on the street. The audience aren’t there to specifically watch a dance show; they’re there to see anything. Some probably don’t even want to see a dancer. So you’ve really got to be good at what you do and quickly get that across to the audience, and that comes from your character.”
Our House tours from 10 Aug – 25 Nov
More information, tickets & dates at: www.ourhousetouruk.com