I should begin with a confession. I’m not really an Ian Dury and the Blockheads fan. Which is not to say I don’t like his music, more that I don’t know it that well – it provides the soundtrack to a few hazy memories of being in the back of my dad’s car when I was younger, but in 1979, when Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3) reached number 3, and the band performed to sell-out crowds at Hammersmith Odeon, I was… well I wasn’t actually born. And yet this did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of Graeae’s hugely popular production inspired by their long-time supporter and patron.
What is genius about Jenny Sealey’s direction and Gaelle Mellis’ design for Reasons to be Cheerful is that on the surface the production appears to be gloriously chaotic, but there is no doubt that that this is an exquisite example of organised chaos. Using the familiar framework of a play within a play, group of actors, musicians, dancers and signers populate the set – which is introduced as The Old Red Lion – to enact a play they have devised to recount the story of Vincent and his dying dad’s aborted trip to see Ian Dury and the Blockheads in Hammersmith in 1979. As they tell the story they energetically perform some of Dury’s best known hits. It is noisy, and riotous, and delightfully shambolic – Colin, Vinnie’s best mate playing himself, falls asleep; Vinnie’s mum goes off script as the story reaches its denouement; and the mate they have brought in to sing most of the songs frequently (and loudly) expresses his frustration at ‘Blockheads’ being omitted from the evening’s playlist. But far from being diversions from the story, each of these moments is a treat – Colin (Stephen Collins), with his love of anarchy, his best mate and walnut whips, provides moments of laugh out loud comedy; singer John (John Kelly) is evidence of the pure passion and dedication of Dury’s fans; and Vinnie and his mum’s reluctance to reach the end of the story is a moving testament to grief and the need to keep memories alive. Vinnie’s (Stephen Lloyd) voice breaking as he sings My Old Man is particularly poignant. It’s not just the music and the personal stories of the characters that draw you in – despite being set over thirty years ago, the political and social context feels chillingly relevant, with references to rising prescription charges, strikes, and public sector cuts.
While the story may centre around Vinnie, the entire cast are hugely talented performers. Graeae prides itself on leading the way when it comes to placing inclusivity at the heart of its work, not only using disabled performers, but incorporating accessibility in the form of signing, captions and audio description into what is happening on stage, rather than it appearing at the periphery, for selected performances only. Here, signing is often incorporated into the choreography, and audio description is provided by a character on the pub’s payphone filling their absent mate Blind Derek in on what’s going on. A screen above the stage shows captions, as well as quirky animations to accompany the song lyrics. Audiences are warmly encouraged to join in with the songs, and are even taught how to sign “sex and drugs and rock n’ roll”. Saturday night is the last performance of the tour, and the cast want to go out on a high, so don’t miss out.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download the Blockheads back catalogue.
Read my interview with Jenny Sealey here
Reasons To Be Cheerful runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 7 April 2012
Reviewed for Left Lion