A true measure of the success of any musical based on the back catalogue of an artist is if someone unfamiliar with that music can still enjoy the show. While fans of Ian Dury and The Blockheads will undoubtedly revel in the nostalgia of Graeae Theatre’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, even those unfamiliar with his works will find much to warm the heart here.
It’s 1979 and Dury is at the height of his fame. Tickets for his concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon are like gold dust, not much comfort for fans Vinnie and Colin, a couple of shop assistants in a Southend supermarket. Colin knows every single fact about Dury and, for Vinnie, the opportunity of taking his terminally ill father to the concert is the one thing he feels he can do to make a difference.
Paul Sirett’s script makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is shoehorning Dury’s material into the plot, but its upfront honesty adds to its charm. The audience are addressed directly, the cast remain on stage throughout, and the tongue remains firmly in cheek. That’s not to say there isn’t emotion here. Issues of prejudice, disability, terminal illness and grief are all handled with skill and will have audiences laughing one minute and holding back tears the next.
Dury’s often uncompromising lyrics may shock those of a more sensitive disposition but the show serves to highlight not only his poetical talent but also serve as a reminder of his own strong beliefs. It is perhaps fitting for a company such as Graeae, who have done so much to champion disabled performers, to include Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus, his passionate response to his own disability and discrimination, into the heart of their story.
All of Dury’s classics are here, Billericay Dickie, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, What A Waste, Blockheads, and the gloriously enthusiastic Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll. You don’t, however, need an in depth knowledge of punk, this talented company hand you the culture on a plate.
Director Jennie Sealey marshals her multi-talented cast with flair. There are impressive performances throughout, with detailed characterisation even when sitting on the side-lines. Singing, acting or signing here is a cast determined to raise the roof. Stephen Lloyd and Stephen Collins work well together as Vinnie and Colin, Lloyd brining a real emotional edge to his rendition of My Old Man and Collins displaying a fine sense of comic timing. There is also an impressive performance from Nadia Albina as Janine, cast aside by her boyfriend because of her disability. Karen Spicer and Garry Robson provide the emotional heart of the piece as Vinnie’s parents Pat and Bill, while John Kelly’s vocals more than invoke the spirit of the late Ian Dury.
Robert Hyman’s musical direction brings out the best from his onstage musicians and frequently threatens to lift the roof off the theatre. Mark Haig’s video design manages to incorporate subtitling with graphics to invoke a sense of late 1970s.
In a glorious celebration of life and music, it would be the coldest of hearts that didn’t find a huge Reason To Be Cheerful after seeing this exuberant show.
Originally written for The Public Reviews