Review: Reasons To Be Cheerful, Theatre Royal Stratford East

Ian Dury was born in Harrow in 1942. He contracted polio during the 1949 epidemic, which left him disabled in later life. In 1971, Ian Dury and the Blockheads were formed and quickly became widely popular, part of a new wave of rock and roll music. While Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson were setting up Graeae, a theatre group who place D/deaf and disabled performers centre stage, Ian Dury and the Blockheads were performing ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ nationwide. A song which, released in 1981, was a response to that year’s ‘International Year of Disabled Persons’, which Dury viewed as patronising and regressive. The BBC banned ‘Spasticus’ at the time, but years later; it would be performed as the opening of the London 2012 Paralympics, performed by the cast of Reasons To Be Cheerful.

First hitting the stage in 2010, Reasons To Be Cheerful has since toured the country, played in Brazil and Mexico, and has now returned to Theatre Royal Stratford East for its final leg. Directed by Jenny Sealey, this play-within-a-play explores not the life of Ian Dury, but that of his fans – and the unique connection between an artist and his loyal supporters. It’s 1981, and we follow superfan Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) as he, along with his mates Colin (Stephen Collins), Janine (Beth Hinton-Lever) and Mum, Pat (Karen Spicer), take to the pub on the anniversary of his father’s death, to tell the story of his Dad, Bobby (Gerard McDermott), and their quest to get tickets for the Blockheads at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1979.

Paul Sirett’s writing captures the spirit of the era. There is anarchy and disobedience in the air, only fed by London’s growing punk scene and the disillusionment that comes with the economic and political climate.

The cast, undoubtedly, is what makes this show so brilliant. Imagine the usual over-the-top enthusiasm of your classic West End musical – then double it. It’s clear that the cast genuinely care about the show, the story and enjoy Dury’s music and lyrics. It is, in parts, cheesy – but who cares? The energy is infectious, and I’ve never seen an audience so willing to participate, standing up and dancing when requested.

Lloyd is loveable as cockney lad and narrator of the story, Vinnie, and Collins bags most of the laughs as faux-anarchist wannabe punk Colin. Other stand-out performances include lead vocalist of in-house band John Kelly, whose intermittent shouting protests about performing Blockheads is always hilarious, and Max Runham, who plays sleazy misogynistic boss Dave almost too well.

While the narrative can be confusing – its meta nature makes it sometimes hard to draw the line between scripted and not – Reasons To Be Cheerful is nevertheless delightful. Featuring hits like ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll’, ‘What a Waste’ and the uber-sexy ‘Hit Me’, it’s a downright riot. The dropped h’s and charming cockney-isms are bound to stir a pride in working-class Londoners, and bring joy to the rest. A party for all, inclusive of all, Reasons To Be Cheerful embodies Dury and all he stood for; but is also a sentimental, foot-stomping and jolly good knees-up.

Reasons To Be Cheerful played at Theatre Royal Stratford East until November 4 2017.

Photo: Patrick Baldwin