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Review: Reasons to be Cheerful (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Graeae's touring production, featuring the music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, returns to Theatre Royal Stratford East

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There's something exuberant about the music of Ian Dury and The Blockheads that makes it perfect for live performance. Time has done little to dull the pure joy of songs like "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" or "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick", and theatre company Graeae perfectly tap into this deep well of energy in this powerful production, which has returned three times over the last seven years.

Set in a 1981 southeastern pub,'"Reasons to be Cheerful'' employs something of a metatheatrical structure. We follow lead character Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) as he performs a play honouring the memory of his deceased father, acting out an evening the pair try to get to London to see Dury and The Blockheads live. Various characters stand in as their former selves or periphery figures as they reminisce about the special evening. Bar stools and half-drunken pint glasses litter the stage, with individuals going back to drink when not 'in character'. Think Brecht in a boozer. As a tribute to his dad's favourite band, the music of Ian Dury and The Blockheads is littered throughout, sung with gusto by the cast alongside lead John Kelly.

D/deaf and disabled-led Graeae create a show which makes inclusivity and accessibility an intrinsic part of the show. A case in point is audio describer Wayne 'Pickles' Norman's who is incorporated as a character within the show. Beyond this, choreographer Mark Smith does a marvellous job of fluidly including signing into the various dance routines in the show, with the result being nothing short of a company functioning at their honed best.

Through all the mayhem some performances stand out, including Louis Schultz-Wiremu's ability to play saxophones at once, or the quiet dignity of Karen Spicer as Vinnie's mother Pat. Director Jenny Sealey has the most fun when she's filling her stage with the crowd-pleasing numbers, the most successful of these being "Spasticus Autisticus". That song, in particular, is made all the more charged by the fact that it was originally banned by the BBC when it first debuted. Here, it is given a much needed platform to be heard, one that it needed in 1981 and still needs now.

But the melancholic tone that sits beneath this revival of the 2010 musical is unavoidable. The show was written at the beginning of a Conservative government, and set in a world at the beginning of another, equally infamous Tory era in the 1980s. Seven years into one and almost forty years on from another, the anarchic anti-establishmentarianism of the show feels both nostalgic and sadly prescient.

Ian Dury was a long-term supporter of Graeae, and to see his songs act as a rallying cry for those who are most keenly affected by welfare cuts makes for a powerful piece of theatre. This is landmark, punchy and powerful material, essential viewing for anyone angry at the status quo.

Reasons to be Cheerful runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 4 November.