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Describing Graeae’s Reasons to be Cheerful as jukebox musical might be technically accurate, but to do so conjures images of flamboyant West End shows that could hardly have less in common with it. The self-conscious theatricality, inventiveness and sheer force of anarchic energy driving this production would surely have made Ian Dury himself proud – indeed, the Blockheads frontman was himself a patron of the company during his lifetime.
Rather than trying to shoehorn songs into an otherwise naturalistic context, Graeae make the entire story a performance, skirting song and dance kitschness or any stretching of credulity through the device of a show within a show. It opens with the hustle and bustle of friends and family assembling in a hall, mucking around and having a natter as they set up their makeshift stage. Vinnie (named after Gene Vincent) explains that he has planned a tribute to his dad in the form of a retelling of the events of the last few days before his death. To help him out, his friends are variously contributing live music, projector slides and video footage, decorations, Twiglets and of course, their acting talents.
Accordingly, it’s a gloriously unpolished, slapdash affair, full of interruptions, diversions, technical errors, off-book additions, slips in and out of character, ridiculous costumes (including drag) and repeated demands for more music – the songs of Ian Dury just about holding it all together like so many safety pins. Don’t imagine that this means the band are anything less than brilliant, mind. Along with its warmth and wit, the blistering sets are easily the best thing about this show, each one receiving a more enthusiastic ovation than the last.
The basic plot of the show the lads and lasses have cobbled together is that Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and his eccentric anarchist best mate Colin (Stephen Collins) are desperate to go and see the Blockheads gig at the Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo). Vinnie’s dad, Bobby (Gerard McDermott) was meant to get the tickets for the three of them to go, but in his understandable distraction, ended up forgetting to buy any before they’d all sold out.
Fortunately, Vinnie’s crush at work, Janine (the feisty Beth Hinton-Lever) overhears her slimy, preening boyfriend and their boss, Dan (Max Runham, almost unrecognisable after his recent role as the angelic father in Ramps on the Moon’s Tommy), boasting about his exploits with another girl in the shop, and in revenge, decides to steal his four tickets to the concert.
Unfortunately, en route from their Southend home up to the venue, the group get caught up in an accident that puts the car completely out of service, meaning that they never actually make it. Instead, they descend on Vinnie’s family beach hut, where they’re forced to make their own fun – and with a moose head called Mervyn, Bobby’s old leathers and Gene Vincent records, and Janine now on the rebound, there’s plenty to be had.
In true, no-nonsense, unsentimental punk style, the show holds its emotional crux – Bobby’s terminal illness – consistently at arm’s length, somehow rendering it more poignant through understatement. Like all good tributes, it’s less an opportunity for moping than a celebration of life – a joyous, uplifting send-off both for the fictional Bobby and the real-life Ian Dury.
Less subtle is the anti-Tory sentiment, which is carried on from the 70s and 80s right through until the present day. This is a show that wears its politics on its sleeve – almost as openly as Colin, who merrily calls his boss a Nazi and spends his time at work drawing circles round the ‘A’s on Andrex boxes. Colin takes things to comic extremes of course; but while Bobby’s just as funny, there is a genuine bitterness to the tirade he launches into at his wife’s suggestion that they buy their council house. As an ex-union man, he’s steadfast in his convictions, and his assertion that the Tories “give everyone cancer” is only half in jest.
Probing a little further, perhaps the real outrage of the story is the fact that Vinnie has had to give up hopes of further study to get a job and help support his dying dad while his mum cares for him at home. It’s this that feeds directly into the anger that informs the big finale – a brand new song written by the surviving Blockheads together with onstage vocalist John Kelly. “If It Can’t Be Right Then It Must Be Wrong” is an anti-cuts anthem – in particular decrying the chipping away at support for people with disabilities. It’s obviously an issue close to the hearts of Graeae’s members – and just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, it’s accompanied by projected images of contemporary politicians sprouting horns and devilish grins. Not the most nuanced critique, maybe, but then, in what other spirit than one of brazen, barefaced cheek could you capture the rebellious spirit of the 70s? Its energy and lyrical gymnastics certainly feel very in keeping with the genuine Dury songs performed throughout the show.
Gags where they come are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, though the less deliberately comic dialogue occasionally feels a little clunky and oddly paced, perhaps due in part to the fact that, thanks to the slides, we can often read the lines before we hear them. Perhaps a rolling script might have worked better than projecting a whole page at a time?
Still, with its cleverly integrated accessible features, it’s certainly ambitious, and even if not every experiment quite pays off, the risk-taking itself should be applauded. An exhilarating, hugely entertaining, rollercoaster ride of a live experience.
Reviewed by Heather Kincaid