Reasons to Be Cheerful
Paul Sirett, music by Ian Dury
New Wolsey Theatre, Graeae and Theatre Royal Stratford East co-production
Theatre Royal Stratford East
It is thirty years since the Graeae company was founded with its policy of creating theatre for and with disabled and non-disabled actors and creatives and it is 10 years since the death of Ian Dury. Dury was a Graeae patron from the start. This raucous, lively show is a celebration of Graeae and of Ian Dury's music that weaves his songs into a simple plot line about a group of youngsters and the dad of one of them who want to go to a concert by Dury and the Blockheads
"It's organised chaos: that's what we've got on stage." That is the way its creators describe Reasons to Be Cheerful and they are right, but oh, how very well they have organised it. It is another of those shows with a band upstage and a series of numbers and various acted scenes being performed in front of it. That sounds so boring but it is amazing how often it proves enough, not least in a number of shows that have originated at this theatre. It works because of the sheer raw energy that everyone concerned puts into it, an energy that is driven by the vigour of the music.
The conceit this time is that we are in a pub where the performers are putting on a show about this episode in their lives and there is plenty of pre-performance contact between company and audience with things to eat being passed around, signing and shouting between the gallery and the stage until Stephen Lloyd's Vinnie starts to tell their story. With Stephen Collins as his deaf mate Colin, Daniel McGowan as Dave their prick of a supermarket boss, the sprightly Nadia Albina as Dave's girlfriend (though she's soon to drop him), Karen Spicer as Vinnie's mum and Garry Robson as his dad there is a team that gives us the underlying truths behind their characters even as they stoke up their performances.
With John Kelly spinning in his wheelchair on lead vocals and a cracking band, they give us a big chunk of the Dury songbook from 'Sweet Gene Vincent' to 'Hit Me!', 'Wake Up and Make Love With Me" to "My Old Man", "Spasticus Autisticus" and of course the song that gives this show its title. With musical director Robert Hyman (who also plays Vinnie's uncle) on keyboards, Nixon Rosembert and dramatist Sirett on guitars, MacGowan pitching in on saxophone and bang in the middle Mat Fraser, not acting this time but pounding away on drums, it is not exactly a calm collected show. To them you can add a pair of dancing, prancing interpreters Jude Mahon (signing) and Wayne 'Pickles' Norman (describing) - this is an entertainment that leaves no one out, and that is reflected in the story too.
The vocals aren't always as clear as when Dury sang them but if you don't already know the words they are either signed or shown as text as part of Mark Haig's video which gives a sort of running commentary throughout.
For some in the audience this will be a nostalgia trip, the play within a play is set in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher had just got in power. This infectious beat would surely get anyone going even if they genuinely don't know who Dury was, though died-in-the wool Tories who believe the Iron Lady could do not wrong might find the mixture of anarchist and old socialist feeling a bit much to take. But hey, welcome to the working classes, just enjoy it, join the party - even if it's not your Party.
You can't bring the usual theatre critic's terms of reference to a show like Reasons to Be Cheerful. Amid all its rough-edged vibrancy you probably won't even notice how cleverly director Jenny Sealey and her team have put the show together to make sure it tells its story, keeps you engaged and makes sure everyone (not least the performers) has a jolly good time. That is the measure of how successful they have been.
Runs until 13th November 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton