REVIEW Reasons to be Cheerful, Theatre Royal Stratford East
When Andy Serkis was cast as the late punk poet Ian Dury the film biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll earlier this year, many disabled people saw it as yet another wasted opportunity.
Why can’t disabled people be played by disabled actors? How else can disabled performers break the glass ceiling holding them back from the top jobs?
Well Hackney-based theatre company, Graeae, is taking on the challenge with its new musical fittingly inspired by Dury, for many years a staunch supporter of its work. Reasons to be Cheerful, at Theatre Royal Stratford East, is a rip-roaring romp through the songs and spirit that sent the former art teacher spiralling to stardom in the 70s -with professional disabled actors and musicians placed firmly centre stage.
For, this of course, we should be thankful. But the show itself does not instantly deliver all the joy it promises.
It’s 1979, the year of Graeae’s conception, and Ian Dury & The Blockheads are storming the charts with their new single Reasons to be Cheerful, part 3. The coming of age play by Paul Sirett, author of ska musical The Big Life, follows young shop worker Vinnie and his mates on the quest for tickets to the band’s sold-out gig.
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Despite a lively interactive opening, the story starts off at quite a slow pace. Characters get laborious introductions and a rather simplistic narrative takes over.
Performances of some of Dury’s best-loved songs such as What a Waste!, Billericay Dickie and Clevor Trevor are bashed out by the six-piece live band, including Sirett himself, with verve. But they don’t slot into the storyline seamlessly.
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And, considering the talents of the stars onstage, the choreography of the set pieces is disappointing. Communication and inclusivity are central to the show, but the performers could bust some more imaginative dance moves alongside the sign language.
Saying that, the cast’s energy is infectious. Stephen Llloyd is instantly appealing as Vincent and his relationship with Colin, played by up and coming deaf actor Stephen Collins, is believable and honest. Garry Robson plays Vincent’s cancer-stricken Dad with humour and heartbreak, while band vocalist John Kelly delivers Dury’s snarling sarcasm in song.
The plotline thankfully makes way for the music in the second half. Tracks such as Wake Up and Make Love With Me, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll make much more sense, not only because they are more well known. The pride and anger that fuelled Dury’s riotous career, as well as the politics of the era, finally arrives with a chaotic rendition of Spasticus Autisticus, the song that got him banned by the BBC. And after that, the performance descends into a party. Forget that glass ceiling. This lot raise the roof.
Reasons to be Cheerful, directed by Jenny Sealey, runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until November 13. Tickets are between �7 and �20, available online at www.stratfordeast.com or call the box office on 020 8534 0310.