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Review by Michael Billington, The Guardian

Making a musical out of the greatest hits of Madness creates an instant problem: their songs all sound very much the same. Despite occasional excursions into soul and vaudeville, they make constant use of a Jamaican dance rhythm known as “ska” and, in the course of a long evening, the law of diminishing returns inevitably applies.

Tim Firth, of Neville’sIslandfame, has tried to compensate by creating an ingenious book to cover the music’s monotony. His story concerns the twin possibilities confronting a Camden Irish lad called Joe Casey after a teenage break-in. Honest Joe confesses his sins, gets sent to a young offenders institution and, after an endless series of scrapes, takes on a big building-tycoon and wins both his sweetheart’s and his mother’s love. Dishonest Joe, on the other hand, makes money through alarm-system scams, goes into property and winds up allowing his mother’s house to be torched for the sake of a development deal.

Given that Firth has worked a good deal at Scarborough’sStephenJosephTheatre, it’s no surprise his book is full of Ayckbournian moral dilemmas. But the kind of alternate choices that fuel a play like Sisterly Feelings simply become confusing in a musical: doubly so when they have to cue in pre-existing Madness numbers. Firth’s book is also forced into all kinds of logical contortions.

The musical groans under the burden of too much plot; and after a time the raucous sameness of the numbers begins to pall. Admittedly one or two are imaginatively staged by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Baggy Trousers, for instance, turns a schoolroom into a riot of careering desks and Driving in My Car takes a battered old jalopy on a dizzying roller-coaster ride. But the strain of shoehorning the numbers into the story begins to tell with a song like Night Boat toCairowhich sends the characters on an implausible trip to a Thameside Oriental pleasure palace.

The show is not only hard work to watch. It looks even harder work to perform with Michael Jibson, who has a clown’s mobile features, spending much of the evening frenziedly switching costumes and personae as the two faces of Joe. Julia Gay, as his teenage sweetheart, sings clearly but is also forced to shuffle between good Joe’s lost love and bad Joe’s disillusioned wife. And, despite decent back-up from Ian Reddington and Lesley Nichol as Joe’s parents, the evening as a whole seems less a celebration of Madness than a form of capricious folly.