Joe Nawaz has to reluctantly admit he likes MT4Uth's production of Our House, even if he doesn't like their name
It’s musical theatre of the kids, by the kids, for the kids – which, on the plus side, means that the performances they produce come from the heart, and with a disarming enthusiasm. On the negative side, their text-ese name: 'MT4Uth' anybody? It’s Stephen Fry’s worst nightmare.
What MT4Uth offer and indeed deliver is spirited musical theatre for children of all ages and abilities. They also somehow manage to attract genuinely impressive figures from the world of musical theatre to work with them. The names may mean nothing to the lay person, but the likes of choreographers Robert Foley and Ismail Omari, and artistic director Per Eltvik, who all worked on Our House, seldom come cheaply or easily.
It produces the most likeable, not to mention tangible results. Having recently taken old hippy classic Godspell to the London International Youth Arts Festival, MT4Uth returned triumphant as winners of the festival’s coveted Most Innovative Theatre Company. Not a bad day’s work for a shoe-string budgeted youth outfit from ‘over here’.
With nary a moment to rest on their laurels, MT4Uth have now produced their idiosyncratic, energetic version of Our House - the musical based on the music of Madness - for a short run at the Waterfront. When you take into account the fact that the teen cast of 40-odd had just seven days to workshop and choreograph some nifty group routines, solo vocals and even, blimey, some acting, the results are at the very least impressive.
The sweetly traditional and slightly kitchen-sinky plot of Our House – about a young working-class man who makes a fateful choice on his 16th birthday – denies the show that whiff of camp excess that can embarrassingly undermine the best intentioned youth productions.
It’s clearly not a sing-a-long riot in the vein of say, an Abba musical – partly because one gets the impression that the songs of Madness aren't familiar to the relatively august audience. And one can only guess what the proud parents and expectant sponsors made of some of the decidedly un-PG elements in the production.
Take the very start of the performance: the venerable chairman of MT4Uth Gerry Gilpin warmly introduces the cast to the approval of the gathered guests. Such polite reverence for the transformative power of youth theatre is instantly upended by the cheeky opening lines of the play, which concern novelty condoms and, crikey, orgasms.
The other great thing about this production is you are reminded, out of the mouths of babes, just how grown-up, clever and satisfying the Madness canon is. Strange though it is to hear 'Michael Caine' sung in Norn Iron accents, it reminds you of what a great song it is. Even more pleasing is the fact that Madness songs do often have a rich narrative thread to them which, yes, make sense in the context of the plot.
What’s particularly edifying about watching a MT4Uth performance also is the clear difference between these kids enjoying the hell out of what they do on stage and the glassy-eyed stage school posturings we’ve perhaps come to expect from the more rarefied end of youth theatre.
Some kids here aren’t the best singers, others are pretty amazing. Some couldn’t perform a theatrical leap if you offered them mechanical uplift, and others can do crazy things like back flips. Other kids, lets just say, may have difficulty walking and talking at the same time. Others still, appear to be very good at both.
The unifying theme is the phenomenal camaraderie of stage. It’s downright infectious. Thanks to that great variety and sense of fun, the potentially robotic is rendered human and the joy is certainly transmitted wholesale to the very back row – right to the end, where the standing ovation offered is spontaneous and wholly unbiased.
The assistant director on Our House, Henry Gilbert has been with MT4Uth from its inception. A recent graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Henry maintains an extremely close affinity with the group. It’s a telling show of loyalty that seems to be the norm with this little band.
He tells me at the end of the evening just how important the work of MT4Uth is, creatively and in a socially empowering sense. If I’d spoken to him before watching Our House, I would have been as cynical as a pre-nup penned by Ben Elton. As it is though, I have to agree absolutely, before grabbing a free glass of wine and heading home to (legally) download my lost Madness singles.
For more information about MT4Uth go to their website.