“Oi, Oi, Johnny boy!”
As an artist, Ian Dury is unique in the annals of British rock music. Contracting polio at the age of seven (which resulted in the paralysis of his left leg, shoulder and arm), Dury didn’t let this stop him from becoming an accomplished musician. Emulating his musical rock ‘n’ roll hero Gene Vincent, Dury fronted two bands in the 1970s. Firstly with ‘Kilburn and the High Roads’ and later with ‘the Blockheads’, with whom he will forever be associated with. Perennially-linked with Essex and east London, Dury has always had a loyal following, but in recent years there has been a growing appreciation of his contribution to pop culture. Not only in terms of his songs, but also as someone who refused to be defined by his appearence. Dury also didn’t ‘sugar-coat’ the way things are or how he felt.
As a byword for diversity in the Arts, with deaf and disabled artists, and theatre makers working together, Graeae – in collaboration with Belgrade Theatre – have created Reasons To Be Cheerful. But rather than do a biographical show about Dury like the film Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Graeae have devised a show that adheres to the spirit of his life and the times that he lived in.
From the off, the show has a meta-/ A Midsummer Night’s Dream vibe, with the actor-musicians addressing the audience as a group of friends and family who are ready to put on a show. Behind them is a labelled picture of Robert James Bentley – the sort of photo one sees at a funeral. This then is a collective remembrance from “two years ago” in 1979…
Vinny Bentley (Stephen Lloyd) lives at home with his mother Pat (Karen Spicer) and father Bobby (Gerard McDermott). Vinny was attending ‘Sixth Form’ at school, but that was before his father was prognosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Understandably, this emotionally takes its toll on Bobby and the rest of the family.
However, Vinny isn’t bereft of social contact, as he has part-time job at the Fine Fare supermarket where his best friend Colin (Stephen Collins) also works. Also present at the same store is Janine (Beth Hinton-Lever) who interests Vinny. Unfortunately for him, she is dating their boss Dave (Max Runham) who has many unsavoury qualities. With Dave gloating about acquiring tickets for an Ian Dury gig and his status as a ‘stud’, plus Bobby’s deteriorating health, Vinny is hard-pressed to find to find “reasons to be cheerful”…
For anyone who is a genuine fan of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, you won’t be disappointed by how many of their most famous songs feature in the show. As ‘the band’, Louis Schultz-Wiremu (saxophone), Paula Faircloth (drums), Nixon Rosembert (bass guitar) and Paul Sirett (guitar) do a fine job of capturing the Blockheads in their prime. With Jude Mahon as sign languge interpreter and captioning displayed upstage, everyone’s able to follow what’s going on.
While the show is in many ways framed to show the ‘greatest hits’, there is much more to it than two hours of nostalgia. While Vinny’s tale is very much a coming-of-age story, it’s Spicer and McDermott who anchor the show, their characters’ relationship feeling the strain with balancing doing what’s best versus ‘having a life’. There’s also the skirting around what the need for palliative care signifies – something Dury himself would have experienced in his last days… And just as vehemently felt as 40+ years ago, the role class and politics plays in people’s lives – especially with regards the working class – is keenly felt and expressed in the show, and refreshingly unapologetic.
© Michael Davis 2020
Reasons To Be Cheerful streams on Graeae’s site until 3rd August. https://graeae.org/reasons-to-be-cheerful-available-to-watch-online/
With captioning and audio description.
Age recommendation 14+