Not a musical, not exactly a play, and not just a tribute show, Jeff Merrifield’s celebration of the poet laureate of punk, Ian Dury, is nonetheless a great theatrical blast, not least because of Adrian Schiller’s absolutely brilliant performance as the polio-stricken diamond geezer.
Schiller shakes, rattles and rolls like some malignant first cousin of Shakespeare’s Richard Crookback, an ecstatically foul-mouthed rocker fuelled by hatred, jealousy and despair. He marks the well-meaning International Year of the Disabled in “Normal Land” with Dury’s outrageous, once-banned “Spasticus Autisticus,” beating on his microphone and pearly king jacket with one black-gloved hand.
I didn’t see the show in Edinburgh last year, nor in its recent manifestation at the Courtyard in Hoxton, so I can’t compare Schiller to Jud Charlton, whom he has recently replaced following Charlton’s defection, allegedly because of re-writes he disliked by Merrifield’s friend Chris Langham. By all accounts, Charlton was quite something.
If so, then Schiller is quite something else. He gets the pain, the swagger, the blood, sweat and tears of the rasping rocker right down to an absolute tee, and doesn’t even miss a single technical trick in matching his voice to the backing track. The stage is a sort of messy concert platform, with banks of coloured lights and piles of rubbish to signify a chaotic domestic life.
And Dury’s foil, stooge and sounding board is his minder and best friend, ex-con Fred “Spider” Rowe, played by a bald and burly Josh Darcy as a dead ringer for Al Murray’s pub landlord. (Darcy also brings off a brilliant impersonation of Janet Street-Porter.) Their head to head slanging match is funny once you get over the battery of four-letter abuse, and their reunion after a ten year stretch of separation genuinely affecting.
All the songs you’d want to hear are here (and handily reprinted in the programme), from “Plaistow Patricia” and “Billericay Dickie” to “Sweet Gene Vincent” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” whose low level throb and Madness-like ska beat is magnificently reprised by the now dead Dury in celestial white tie and tails, putting on the Ritz as befits one born in a gutter behind that hotel.
Dury died in 2000, an Essex cockney with elements of Ray Davies and Lionel Bart whose only significant brush with the theatre was at the Royal Court twenty years ago: he wrote a couple of great songs for Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money in 1987 and followed that with his own gutter press satire, Apples (his Blockheads colleague Mickey Gallagher wrote the music). Apples was/were rotten and flopped, but this resurrection is a glorious vindication of a wonderful spirit.
NOTE: The above review dates from January 2009 and this production's run at the Leicester Square Theatre. At the Edinburgh Fringe, Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Drury runs from 5-30 August 2010 at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh.