Formed in 1980, Graeae Theatre Company exists to place the work of D/deaf and disabled actors and artists centre stage and one of their biggest successes is their tribute to the work of Ian Dury, Reasons To Be Cheerful. Just released as a video stream during lockdown it is totally infectious though, thankfully, in a good way. From the uplifting title to the closing credits this part play, part gig forcefully reminds us that some people seldom if ever get to enjoy the full freedoms that many of us used to take for granted; not, I hasten to add, that this is hammered home in any tub thumping form.
The piece is probably nearest in style to the jukebox musical which I usually find of little interest but writer Paul Sirett and director Jenny Sealey have taken the usual tropes from such a genre and heightened, twisted and reinvigorated them to the point where something fresh and genuinely entertaining emerges. A double narrative sets the tone. Vinnie and his family and friends have suffered a bereavement and they gather in their local pub to console themselves, reminisce and stage a play along the lines of “Do you remember the day when…?”; at this point the main narrative takes over. True this does seem a bit thin on plot. Vinnie, Colin and Janine want to see Ian Dury in Hammersmith; they want to take Vinnie’s Dad; they haven’t got tickets; they obtain some tickets; they set off for the concert; thus, the first half. It’s difficult to see where this might be going for a further hour as the storyline has effectively begun to run out but the play takes a turn to become a meditation on relationships which isn’t as underpowered as may sound.
The production captures the spirit of an age (1979) at a time of deep political unrest which has echoes for the present day. Although many of the characters begin as rather stereotypical of their ages, classes and genders all are revealed to have hidden depths which revitalizes interest. As central figures Vinnie and Colin, Stephen Lloyd and Stephen Collins hold the show together and provide a fine double act; Collins, particularly, raises laughs as a wannabe anarchist. They work in the same supermarket run by odious boss Dave (Max Runham) the sort of sleazy misogynistic greaseball you’d cross the road to avoid. Of course, Dury’s well know figures such as “Billericay Dickie” and “Clever Trevor” put in an appearance. The play fully and cleverly integrates Sign Language Interpreter Jude Mahon and Audio Describer Wayne “Pickles” Norman into the action rather than relegating them to the sidelines as would often be the case. In this truly inclusive performance, a screen at the back of the stage displays the dialogue and song lyrics and these are reproduced as captions on the video. The set itself is a delightful collage honouring Dury’s art background and where you can spend many a happy moment playing “spot the song reference”.
Throughout, the music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads is used to comment and illuminate and the eight piece on stage band (who also pop in and out as characters in the play) have a real feel for the songs. Lead vocalist John Kelly definitely captures Dury’s mischievous demeanour and facility for word play; he doesn’t do an impersonation as such but close your eyes and you can feel the spirit of the original. If some of the arrangements are anarchic then that entirely suits the spirit of the show. In a juke box musical, it is often the case that songs are shoehorned into the narrative simply because the greatest hits have to be there. And although that is still sometimes the case here, it is done with a sense of wit and style which undercuts the trope. “Plaistow Patricia” for instance is belted out as an homage to Vinnie’s mum Pat (Karen Spicer) only for her to pull the rug out at the end by declaring that she actually comes from (next door) East Ham. The musical side of things reaches the heights with a blistering version of Dury’s hymn to disability “Spasticus Autisticus” which Graeae memorably performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics. It is a defiant call to arms which it is difficult to ignore.
This clever and challenging homage to Dury and the fighting spirit of many people in this country deserves your time and attention at a time when we are all experiencing what it is like to have to have to hugely modify our lives. For most of this is temporary but for some it is the norm. Well, blimey – a juke box musical which actually makes you think, there’s a novelty. In fact you could “knock me down with a feather”!
Production photos by Patrick Baldwin
Reasons To Be Cheerful is available on You Tube until August. Click here
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