Book: Paul Sirett
Music & Lyrics: Ian Dury and the Blockheads
Director: Jenny Sealey
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Like many UK acts that emerged in the late 1970s that were different to the family-friendly pop or bland disco that had previously dominated the charts, Ian Dury and the Blockheads were labelled as punk or new wave. Yet Ian Dury had been a fixture on the London pub music scene since the early ‘70s with his previous band, Kilburn and the High Roads, and, while some of his songs (Blockheads, Plaistow Patricia) undoubtedly had an aggressive, punkish feel, he was just as likely to knock out a poignantly sentimental number (My Old Man, Lullaby for Frances). In fact, far more of his songs (Billericay Dickie, Clever Trevor and Reasons to Be Cheerful, to name but three – I could go on) have a great deal more in common with traditional music hall than they do with punk.
What made Dury more punk than most, however, was an utterly uncompromising, in-yer-face approach to his life, music and disability, an attitude that has been fully embraced by Writer Paul Sirett, Director Jenny Sealey and the whole cast while plotting this loud, exuberant and thoroughly enjoyable show.
What we have is a play within a play; it’s 1981, two years after Ian Dury and the Blockheads played five sell-out shows at the Hammersmith Odeon – shows for which Vincent and his best mate Colin had been unable to get tickets – and Vincent, his family and friends are putting on a community show at the local pub to remember his father, a big Gene Vincent (and Ian Dury) fan who had at the time been in the last throes of cancer. The night in question is then recreated as Vincent, his dad and Colin do their level best to get to the show, encountering love, a moose’s head and the back end of another car on the way. The whole thing is, naturally, interspersed by some of Dury’s most memorable numbers, mostly expertly sung by John Kelly and superbly played by an impressive band.
It all starts off in an apparently ramshackle way as the cast first wander one-by-one onto the stage, engage with the audience and even offer twiglets around, thereby creating an immediate bond between performer and spectator that is maintained throughout.
At the centre of it all is the friendship between Vincent (Stephen Lloyd) and Colin (Stephen Collins); while Vincent has to cope with the deteriorating condition of his father (Gerard McDermott, superb) and worship the lovely Janine (Beth Hinton-Lever) and her silver boots (and their zips…) from not-so-far, anarchist Colin is drawing circles around the A on Andrex boxes at the supermarket where they both work and winding up their slimy boss Dave, who also happens to be currently dating the aforementioned Janine and who is brilliantly played by Max Runham.
Graeae, the company behind Reasons to Be Cheerful, has been putting “D/deaf and disabled artists centre-stage” since 1980, and ensures each show is fully accessible with British Sign Language, audio description and creative captioning seamlessly integrated into the performance – particularly apt in Derby which, outside of London, has the UK’s second largest population of deaf people living and working in and around the city.
They’re the ideal group to ensure Dury’s singular approach to his life and lyrics is given the treatment it deserves; when they perform Spasticus Autisticus – and remind us in the process that at the time it was released (1981), it was banned by a BBC unable to even slightly understand what Dury was saying – you can see that it’s personal.
You don’t need to be an Ian Dury fan to either understand or enjoy Reasons to Be Cheerful, although it would probably help if you’re not easily offended. Mamma Mia this ain’t. If you can cope with that, then chances are you’ll be leaving the theatre with a very big grin on your face.
Runs until 16 September 2017 | Image: Patrick Baldwin