Madness, O2 Arena, review: The great mischief-makers are still having fun

There was plenty of hometown gig good cheer as Madness took over the O2

Who’d have thought that as we reached 2024, Madness would be back at the top of the charts? Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’est La Vie gave Britain’s archetypical singles band their first ever number one album at the end of November. At the O2 Arena on Friday, suited and booted frontman Suggs, Madness’ ever-reliable mischievous ringleader, took the news with trademark tongue-in-cheek bravado. “Taylor Swift, you can do one! And Drake! You can get out the cab right now, too.” It’s not bad going, he concluded, given “the fact we’re still alive is sort of a miracle”.

The Nutty Boys’ now traditional December jaunt long ago became a not-to-be-missed festive knees-up and the rowdy crowd – dressed in a mix of Santa hats and staple Madness uniform fedoras and fezzes – came expectantly for hits and hometown gig good cheer. There was plenty of the latter: stories of the old days; shout-outs to family (including keyboardist Mike Barson’s 97-year-old mum); and, in the encore, a warm cover of The Specials’ “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” in tribute to “an old pal of ours”, Terry Hall.

An excellent, hit-packed support slot from the Lightning Seeds and a well-judged pre-gig DJ set left Madness with an open goal, one they took advantage of after a slight detour through a first half that was heavy going on new songs of a darker hue.  

(Photo: Victor Frankowski/Supplied)

Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’est La Vie was not exactly Madness at their most jubilant: a three-act song suite narrated by actor Martin Freeman, it took the key Madness components of ska and music hall into slower, opaquer territory, observing the bizarre nature of existence in the face of impending apocalypse: “Run for Your Life” took a very on-the-nose swipe at the elite for their part in the mess we find ourselves in.

Not exactly “House of Fun”, then, but Madness always slipped contentious social commentary into their on-the-surface joviality. As Suggs stated, 1980’s “Embarrassment” commented on the “consternation” caused by saxophonist Lee Thompson’s teenage sister Tracy having a mixed-race baby. As it happened, the daughter in question, Hayley, was in the crowd on her 43rd birthday.

Madness replicated the album’s structure by splitting the show into three acts. After an introduction video from Dame Helen Mirren, the curtains came down to reveal a stage set like an old Victorian auditorium, a fitting stage for brooding opener “Theatre of the Absurd”, an excellent Samuel Beckett-esque musing on the “black comedy” of both life and performance.

Eight other new tracks of varying quality followed, interspersed with hits – the young lovers’ tiff of “My Girl”, the calypso-tinged “Wings of a Dove”, with every “whoa whoa” bellowed back – and Suggs’ reliable presence. “I’ve come to the conclusion so many of our songs are about petty criminality,” he said before new song “Baby Burglar”, a ghostly, catchy vignette about youthful thievery that ended with a sax flourish of the Batman theme.  

Eventually, “One Step Beyond” had everyone on their feet, the starting gun on a barrage of pure gold (“House of Fun”, “Baggy Trousers”, “Our House”, singalong of the night “It Must Be Love”) that were dispatched by the eight-piece ensemble with such vim and vigour it was like no time had passed. Perhaps new song “In My Street” put it best: “Must be 40-odd years now/ But don’t time fly/ When you’re having fun”.

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