Photo: Patrick Baldwin
First produced in 2010, Graeae Theatre Company’s raucous musical tribute to the iconic music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Reasons to be Cheerful, is lifting the roof of the Theatre Royal Stratford East until the end of next week in a joyous and boisterous grand finale to the show’s third outing.
Penned by Paul Sirett (who also plays guitar) and directed by Graeae’s artistic director, Jenny Sealey, RTBC is an unabashed feel-good riot of a show which celebrates Dury and the band’s genius. With Graeae “...breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions and boldly placing D/deaf and disabled artists centre stage,” it’s no coincidence that the show’s central focus gives huge respect to a man who himself was disabled by Polio as a young boy. However, in the same way that Dury didn’t treat his disability as an issue, the company taking to Theatre Royal Stratford East’s stage this week (made up of both disabled and non-disabled members) blatantly, purely and rightly solely focus on having one hell of a party.
But don’t take my word for it. When I interviewed cast member, Beth Hinton Lever, prior to the tour’s opening she put it perfectly: “We’re not saying, ‘Come and see this show because there are disabled people in it,’ it’s more like, ‘Come and see the show because it’s awesome.’ We’re all onstage, we’re all as we are... rocking out and having a great time, and I think that’s exactly his [Dury's] spirit. It shouldn’t and doesn’t matter, and you can see that in his lyrics and in his poetry, in the way that he writes the songs, like Spasticus Autisticus which got banned.”
Hinton Lever is the perfect example of how the spirit of Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ music has affected the performer and her peers; with boundless energy, the young actor jumps, bounces and thrills her way through the entire show. And she’s not alone. It was plainly obvious from last night’s press performance that the entire company are having the time of their lives – and thoroughly deserving of their standing ovation which, as someone who thinks standing ovations are over-used these days, I don’t say lightly.
Sealey’s production has been brilliantly put together in what seems like a devised piece, with the ensemble cast ignoring the fourth wall and introducing their fictitious alter-egos (as well as the band) directly to the bubbling audience. This method not only integrates the production with the watching public but also succeeds telling the audience it’s ok to relax, enjoy and join in with the fun. Mixed with Sirett’s witty script, the atmosphere of the show is very funny, touching and nostalgic all at once.
Set in 1979, best friends Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and Colin (Stephen Collins) are desperate to see Ian Dury and The Blockheads perform live at the Hammersmith Odeon. However, the gig is sold out and, to make matters worse, Dave (Max Runham), their womanising boss at Finefare, has four tickets. However, when Dave’s girlfriend, Janine (Beth Hinton Lever), sees sense and dumps the chauvinistic twat (grabbing his tickets in the process), Vinnie, Colin and Janine set off for Hammersmith with Vinnie’s dad, Bill (Garard McDermott)... And, if only life were that simple! Needless to say not all goes to plan, not that it really matters in this coming-of-age celebration.
Another touch of genius is the decision to follow the dialogue with the entire script projected onto a rear screen. Not only does it make one fully appreciate Sirett’s story and his characters, but when the song lyrics are also displayed throughout the various numbers, Even the most ardent Blockheads fans’ will have their eyes opened as we follow Dury’s fast-paced and eclectic words – pure genius!
The Blockheads were (and still are) an extremely talented bunch of musicians (I was indeed lucky to see them and Ian Dury perform live in the 80s). It’s a strong testament just how well Graeae’s band manage to emulate their original counterparts, and the addition of John Kelly’s lead vocal – who really has found the spirit of Dury’s performance – is the icing on the cake.
As well as the title song (...Part III), we’re treated to ripping versions of What a Waste, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Blockheads, My Old Man, Billericay Dickie, Spasticus Autisticus, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Sweet Gene Vincent... among many more as well as a new protest song specially written for the show by Derek Hussey, Chaz Jankel and John Kelly called If It Can’t Be Right Then It Must Be Wrong, performed during the finale.
It’s all happening at the end of the Central Line in Stratford, best get yourself down there, and let’s hope this isn’t the end of this brilliant show.
More at: graeae.org/our-work/rtbc
Photo: Patrick Baldwin