Thursday 4 June 2020

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford

When Graeae Theatre Company staged their Ian Dury musical Reasons To Be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 2017 it became one of their biggest successes. First performed in 2010, the cast went on to perform at the 2012 Paralympic Games, with the 2017 production including a newly-penned protest song by members of The Blockheads. Now they're giving us another reason to be cheerful, by releasing the performance online.

Featuring the music of Ian Dury and The Blockheads (best known for Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), the show is a coming of age story that's part-gig part-musical. Graeae are the UK's leading disabled-led theatre company, so creating a show inspired by Dury - who contracted polio at a young age and whose 1981 song Spasticus Autisticus was banned by the BBC - is an ideal pairing. The result is a joyous celebration of disabled performers, of young people finding their voice.

The plot itself isn't anything to write home about: a group of young people in the late 70s intent on watching Ian Dury himself live at the Hammersmith Apollo. Predictably they don't make it to the gig, but it's about the journey along the way.

The sense of mundanity is befitting Dury's lyrics, but as a drama it lacks peaks, troughs and characterisation. With plenty of swearing in its basic storytelling, it feels a little immature and one-note. What's more, it's laced with misogyny and sexism that may be indicative of the period, but feels uncomfortable to watch now. The show's sense of nostalgic Britishness is a snapshot in time. At least the frequent anti-Conservative sentiment somewhat rings true today.

Dury's music is also something of an acquired taste. Praised for his wordplay, the clever rhymes are full of wry, biting humour that's politically incorrect. Musically, though, it's monotonous spoken word, kazoos and grating instrumentation.

Still, the cast's performance is commendable for maintaining Dury's spirit: his musical style, his challenging of perceptions. Stephen Lloyd leads the storytelling well as Vinnie, but its Gerard McDermott and Karen Spicer as Vinnie's parents who provide the emotional anchor, before we're swept into another stomping, anarchic musical number.

For all its plot flaws, Reasons To Be Cheerful is an inspiring watch that brings a diverse cast to the stage. Accessibility is Graeae's raison d'etre, and here we have cast members signing and subtitles both as on-stage projections and now video subtitles. It ensures that, no matter who you are, the unique energy of this show can be appreciated by all.

Reasons To Be Cheerful is available online from June 3rd - August 3rd.

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford