A reason to be cheerful

Ian Dury was a mouthpiece for a generation. Now the New Wolsey Theatre are staging the world premiere of a play, Reasons To Be Cheerful, which captures the spirit of the times. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Jenny Sealey MBE and actor John Kelly

Punk, singer-songwriter, actor, author, ambassador for disabled issues, Ian Dury was something of an early 80s Renaissance man. In a world dominated by industrial unrest and the arrival of The Iron Lady inside Number Ten, Dury’s edgy, good-time punk anthems put a spring in the step of the nation.

If he wasn’t hitting you with his rhythm stick, he was cataloguing Reasons To Be Cheerful or lamenting the state of the country in What A Waste. Dury’s lyrics were a distinctive combination of poetry, word play, observation of everyday life, acute character sketches, and vivid, earthy sexual humour. He was not afraid to send himself or his profession up in songs like Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll.

But underneath the feelgood rock ‘n’ roll troubadour, there was a perceptive artist intent of capturing the spirit of the age and standing up for the disenfranchised and those overlooked by the so-called great and the good of society.

The New Wolsey Theatre, in Ipswich, are staging a new play Reasons To Be Cheerful which not only captures the spirit of Dury and his music but also opens a window on a Britain which was being torn apart by social and economic divisions.

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Jenny Sealey MBE, artistic director of Graeae theatre company, said that the one thing the play isn’t is a stage biography. Instead it follows the fortunes of Vinnie, Britain’s greatest Ian Drury and The Blockheads fan. He and his mates are journeying from Southend into London. They are desperate to see Dury perform live but the gig at the Hammersmith Odeon is sold out – the question is what can they do to get in and see the show?

The idea behind the show is to capture the atmosphere and the feel of what it was like to be living in 1979 – a time of tremendous change and social upheaval. Dury’s sharply-pointed, goodtime songs provided a soundtrack for the age.

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Jenny said that the show isn’t a traditional musical but it’s not a rock’n’roll tribute show either. It’s a play with music, with actors and musicians sharing the stage and interacting with one another.

“Ian Dury was Graeae’s patron for many years and I have long wanted to do an Ian Dury musical as a tribute to the great man. We knew we wanted to create a story around the songs rather than a biographical musical. So our musical is the story of fans of Mr Ian Dury and it is a tribute to the gloriousness of the lyrics and music.”

The show is being premiered at the New Wolsey before transferring to Theatre Royal Stratford East. “We approached Sarah Holmes and Pete Rowe very early on about using The New Wolsey because it is an appropriate spiritual home for the musical. We have a long-standing and much valued relationship with the Wolsey. We also knew that we wanted to have an extended run at Stratford East, the best theatre in the East End, the area where Ian Dury called home.

“It is an emotional rollercoaster complete with some classic comedy moments and has many of the famous songs – Reasons to be Cheerful, Hit Me, Billericay Dickie and Sweet Gene Vincent. In a nutshell it is a big knees up down the pub. We rehearsed the songs and script together as we wanted to create a community on stage. Everyone is integral to the piece.”

This view is echoed by vocalist John Kelly who has been involved in the production from the early days when Graeae were workshopping ideas. “I would be the last person to be involved in what you would call a traditional musical but this is different, something really special. They have written it in such a way that it works both as a play and as a gig. Our aim is to give people a really good time. But, having said that there are some parallels between what was happening then and what is going on now. So there’s some food for thought in there as well.”

He said that Dury had always been a hero to him. “Being a disabled person, entering my teenage years in the late 70s, it was good to have someone like him around. Disabled people until then were largely hidden away. I remember going on a scout camp and each section was named after a famous disabled person. I was in Bader, named after Douglas Bader which didn’t mean an awful lot to me, but Ian Dury actually turned up to talk to the Dury camp, so I switched troops in order to meet him.”

He said that it was great having the band and the actor interact on stage. “There’s no distinction between what’s more important: the songs or the dialogue – there both equally important. There are lots of good quotable, laugh-out loud, spikey lines in there. But then again, we want to give justice to the music. The spirit of Ian Dury is certainly in the show. I don’t play Dury, no-one plays Dury but he’s certainly feels part of the show.”

Jenny said that the show has been designed to encapsulate Dury’s fighting spirit. “Ian Dury is without doubt a legend and an important figurehead for disabled people as his whole philosophy was ‘go on have a crack at it/ just do it’. Don’t be afraid to be out there, loud and visible. As a result we want our show to appeal to old and young punks alike.”

She added that they were looking forward to opening the show in Ipswich and hoped that they wouldn’t be Crippled With Nerves – to quote Ian Dury.

n Reasons To Be Cheerful premieres at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and runs until tomorrow.

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