Sunday 19 July 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Reasons to be Cheerful

Punk and jukebox musicals don't seem obvious bedfellows, unless the music comes from Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the theatre company doing the adaptation is Graeae, who champion the work of D/deaf and disabled actors and creatives: Not only did Dury himself have disabilities caused by childhood polio, but he regularly referenced them and celebrated his difference in his songs (most famously "Spasticus Autisticus.") Paul Sirett's book for Reasons to be Cheerful keeps the story very simple as a hook to hang the songs on - not a bad move, given what can happen when a jukebox show overcomplicates its story - and follows Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and his best friend Colin (Stephen Collins) as they try to get tickets to a sold-out Blockheads gig in Hammersmith, at the height of their popularity in 1979.

This is more than just a weekend out for them though, as Vinnie's father Bobby (Gerard McDermott) is dying of cancer, and Vinnie wants him to see his favourite band before his mother (Karen Spicer) has to put him in a hospice.

The framing device is of a pub gig being held three years later, an evening held in Bobby's honour after his death with John Kelly taking the lead vocals (but mainly just wheeling himself on and off the stage to angrily complain about them not including "Blockheads" in the playlist.) This framework of a fairly cobbled-together gig allows Jenny Sealey's production to jump around the story's time frame and keep the Blockheads songs coming. It's also a great match for Graeae's style of integrating accessibility into the story, as Mark Haig and Duncan McLean's video and projections add surtitles in among the 1970s visuals, and the cast wander around the stage providing BSL interpretation for each other's dialogue, with the messiness of the action matching Dury's anarchic music.

Reasons to be Cheerful played on and off throughout the 2010s, and the anger that bubbles under it about Thatcher's government is something else that gives Dury's music an obvious attraction for Graeae, as this show was created at the start of another long Tory rule and one that particularly targeted and villainised the disabled. Dury's overtly sexual lyrics help counteract the othering of people with disabilities and give a smutty, down-to-earth undertone to Vinnie's romance with Janine (Beth Hinton-Lever) while elsewhere the company's disabilities are actively used to help the storytelling (the audience are informed they can tell whether Max Runham is playing good guy Nick or bad guy Dave depending on whether he's wearing his prosthetic arm or not.)

These lockdown releases of filmed performances have inevitably suffered from the fact that theatre is meant to be experienced live with an audience, and it's been a bigger issue for some shows than for others. Being a kind of raucous gig theatre means Reasons to be Cheerful can't help but lose something of its impact on a TV or computer screen, but its anarchic spirit is strong enough that much of it still translates. This is a jukebox musical created for the right reasons, which means even if Ian Dury isn't a name everyone would still recognise today, the spirit his music taps into still has a lot to say, and Graeae's artists are absolutely the right people to channel it for today.

Reasons to be Cheerful by Paul Sirett, Ian Dury, Chaz Jankel, Steve Nugent, Rod Melvin, Davey Payne, Derek Hussey and John Kelly is available until the 3rd of August on Graeae's YouTube channel.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

Photo credit: Patrick Baldwin.

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