Brief Encounter With ... Paul SirettDate: 1 November 2010
Reasons to be Cheerful, a musical based on the songs of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, tells the story of Vinnie and Colin, whose only dream is to see their hero live in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. The show, which is running at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 13 November, is a co-production between the east London venue, The New Wolsey, Ipswich and Graeae, the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre company.
Ian Dury, who died in 2000, was Graeae’s first patron and the show celebrates the disabled performer’s irrepressible spirit through his irreverent songs. Reasons to be Cheerful includes the hits "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick", "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" and "Spasticus Autisticus", which was written in 1981 for the International Year of Disabled Persons, but denied airplay by the BBC for fear of offending listeners with its provocative lyrics.
Here we talk to playwright Paul Sirett, who wrote the book of the musical and appears in the show playing guitar in the onstage band, about bringing Dury’s songs to life.
So I take it you’re a big Ian Dury fan?
Yes, but not as big as some of the fans that I’ve met since starting to do this show, I have to say. Because there are some real big-time fans out there. I was somebody who saw him once and bought the records and I always just thought that the songs would make a great show.
Why write a fictional story rather than focusing on Dury himself?
First of all, like a lot of people, I got very seduced by his story, and it was only after probably a good year or so of working on it that I decided I would write a story about fans of his music rather than a story about him. I came to that conclusion really based on a radio interview I heard with him where he said that he lived in the moment, he lived for today, he didn’t care what people thought about him, he didn’t care if people remembered him, he just wanted to live now and play his music and have a good time. And I thought, well, actually, I’d like to celebrate the man through his music rather than his life.
Was it difficult to choose the songs?
It was hell. Just because there’s so much to choose from. Eventually, because we set the play in 1981 looking back at 1979, that kind of put a cap on historically what songs I could use.
Were there songs you wanted to use that didn’t make it into the show?
There were songs, yes, that didn’t make the final cut. Particularly ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’, which I think is just a joyously funny and intelligent song. He’s up to his mischievous best in his lyric writing. He’s a poet, but he has such fun with it as well. Also ‘I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra’. Both those songs have been in the show at certain points, but for the sake of making it function as a show, they bit the dust unfortunately.
Clearly the show is a must for Ian Dury fans, but what about people who don’t know his music?
I think that they’ll enjoy the show. What’s been really gratifying is that a lot of young people who haven’t got a clue who Ian Dury is come along to the show and absolutely love it. Because it’s a coming of age story really and so they link into that. We’ve had kids loving it and then sending us tweets to say they’re downloading Ian Dury stuff and just really getting into the music. The show takes them into that I think.
Graeae’s artistic director, Jenny Sealey, has created this show with accessibility in mind, in terms of both audiences and performers. Did you have to adapt to working in this way?
Yes, absolutely. It’s actually a really quite refreshing way to work as a writer because you have to embrace the ideas behind signing and behind audio description as part of the show. An audio-described show or a signed show is usually one evening in a run of three or four weeks, but with Graeae, it’s every night. When I write shows with music, I always put the band on stage because I don’t like things to be hidden away and I wanted to do that with signing and with audio description in this show. It gives a different dynamic to the way you write and is very theatrical as well.
Was it challenging to work in this new way?
Yes, because I was doing some of the things that when I’m teaching playwriting I tell people not to do. Because you’re always telling people that less is more and that you shouldn’t tell an audience what you’re doing because they can see what you’re doing. But this was for a different audience, so I had to find a way of narrating it, which is why I’ve set it one stage removed from the actual action of what happens in 1979 so that Vinnie, who’s the main character, can actually narrate bits and pieces, so that would help blind members of the audience without having to put everything into audio description.
As you can probably imagine, working with Graeae has been quite extraordinary and it’s just been wonderful playing in that band, meeting all these people and working on the show with them.