Suggs, the lead singer of landmark 80s band Madness, appeared at the York Opera House last night in a different capacity- that of a storyteller. Specifically, the singer was telling his own life story, a performance which he has now been touring for some time. The piece was inspired by the death of his cat on the morning of his 50th birthday- and things only get more fraught from that moment, taking in his career with the band, his various stints in different areas of show business, and some of the intricacies of his life offstage.
As a big madness fan, I was concerned by the end of the first half. It would be wrong to say that Suggs seemed awkward onstage, but whereas I had expected him to be convivial and conversational he was actually sticking to a very stiff narrative. It was like a monologue, accompanied by piano riffs. There weren’t too many laughs, either; as a younger fan, a lot of the references went straight over my head- I know what teddy boys and mods are, but having been non-existent in the 70s I found it hard to laugh at them. After an hour or so, Suggs began to warm to the audience, and proceedings became a little friendlier- but as the first half came to an end I realised that it had been disappointingly average. The story so far had been interesting and witty- but by no means hilarious, or profound.
Luckily for me, the second half blew all that out of the water- not only saving itself, but also the half that had gone before. Suddenly it all made sense, as Suggs really hit his stride; the humour increased steadily minute-by-minute throughout the second half, culminating in some absolutely hilarious anecdotes. The structure too- so rigid and unforgiving before- now supported a story which became more engaging by the minute. I was in stitches before long, and in the last few minutes the emotional power really came through- I realised the tragedy within the comedy had snuck up on me.
When Suggs becomes comfortable, his stage persona is not unlike that of Eddie Izzard- languid, effortless and hilarious. You can actually hear his voice relaxing over time, from a strained ‘dramatic’ voice initially to that strong accent which we know and love from the first albums. Although it didn’t seem it to start with, the performance was convivial, conspiratorial, and powerfully recognizable. The musical numbers, ably supported by Deano on piano, break up what is an incredibly well-planned effort in autobiographical performance, with all the nuances one might expect of a written version.
The performative aspect itself, once it gets off the ground, is equally subtle- and actually, it’s evident that a lot of stagecraft has gone into this. A simple set consisting of a piano, a chair and a microphone stand actually do function as a set over the course of the evening- again, awkwardly at first, but as things warm up it’s increasingly natural. The story of Madness’ rise, fall and resurrection is told through the story of Suggs 50th birthday. As the tale of the bizarre day progresses, Suggs repeatedly cuts back to sequential events in his life, so that by the end of the day the flashbacks have reached the starting point. Sounds complicated? It certainly is- but in a way which plays onstage as very clever, not inaccessible.
Ultimately, this is a performance for everyone- not just those of us who recall the 70s (not necessarily the same as having lived through them…), or who are avid fans of Madness or Suggs himself. The performer has succeeded in creating something which is watchable, touching, human and hilarious. It is a slow-burner, and you may have to bear with him over the first forays, but in the end it really is worth it: an autobiography on-stage which is as full of madness as it is Madness.