January 10, 2009

Hit Me - the Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury at Leicester Square Theatre

Dominic Maxwell For a labour of love, this two-man show about the singer Ian Dury certainly produced a lot of unpleasantness this week. The leading man, Jud Charlton, was either “sacked” (his version) or simply hadn’t been offered the gig once the show moved from the Fringe to the West End (the producer’s version). The involvement of Chris Langham proved contentious. Charlton said that he clashed with the comedian, who spent ten months in jail for downloading child pornography, over his rewrites. The show’s publicists, however, insisted that Langham had just been helping out as a friend and that his changes had been “minimal”. Well, whatever prompted Charlton to leave, his replacement, Adrian Schiller, has done a stunning job in only eight days. He’s more fine- featured than the real thing, and there are times when he’s more Harold Steptoe than Ian Dury. But there’s an intensity to his performance that can carry you away with him. And his singing is often uncanny.

He’s not, it has to be said, appearing in a particularly great play. There are times, as he trades abuse with his longtime roadie Fred, lustily played by Josh Darcy, that this comes across as a Wikipedia entry with lots of f***s and c***s inserted. Starting out in Dury’s flat in 1980, ending up in Fred’s cottage in 2000, just after Dury’s death from cancer, they rudely remind each other of the high- and lowlights of his life. Contracting polio, aged 7, on a trip to Southend. The childhood in Harrow, the disabled school, the bust-ups with his band, the Blockheads.

Running at two hours, and including eight songs performed to a backing track, this is a high-end tribute show rather than a fully-fledged play. Sure, some of the muso stories are funny. The set, a living room come backstage area, is decorously dilapidated.

Best of all, there’s half an hour or so at the start of the second half when Schiller performs alone. And suddenly it’s a real show. He finds the right rhythm for Dury’s raging. The right mix of pain and defiance. We see behind his front, rather than get reminded of how magnificent it was. The show gives us plenty of facts — Dury spurned Andrew Lloyd Webber’s request to co-write Cats; he nicked the melody for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll from a jazz bass line — but there’s room for so much more emotion.

It’s one for the fans, who will enjoy the details. And if there’s a better way to end an act than with Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick — Dury’s one chart-topper, an unmistakable mix of music hall and jazz-funk — then I’ve not seen it. No wonder they do it twice.

Box office: 0844-847 2475. Until 14 Feb 2009


Reasons to be cheerful

Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes of Ian Dury Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2
Ian Dury's life story has been hit by controversy on the road to the West End.
He would have loved it

Kitty Empire by Kitty Empire

Sunday 11 January 2009

What would Ian Dury, author of 1978's Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, have made of the controversy surrounding the staging of his life story? You can't help but conclude that the poliomyelitic pop miscreant would have found it all a hoot.

Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes of Ian Dury has just transferred to the West End after a short run at Hoxton's Courtyard Theatre. It began its celebrated life at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, starring Jud Charlton as Dury and Josh Darcy as his long-suffering minder, Fred "Spider" Rowe. It was - and is - a candid recounting of the ballad of Ian Dury, who died from cancer in 2000 with a few hits, considerable notoriety and much geezer-savant wordplay to his credit. He was possibly the only pop star to appear on Top of the Pops in leg irons. His influence lives on, most palpably in laddish wordsmiths like the Streets but also in cult figures like Pete Doherty. The Libertines' What a Waster is a homage to Ian Dury and the Blockheads's What A Waste. Dury's story is well worth telling.

But over Christmas Hit Me! lost its lead actor - and half the production as a result. There are only two roles. Adrian Schiller now plays Dury while Darcy continues as Spider. One preview last week was jinxed by a power cut. Since then it has emerged that Charlton quit over tweaks to the script authored by disgraced actor Chris Langham, former star of The Thick Of It who was jailed for downloading child porn in 2007. Charlton objected to Langham's addition of "crude jokes", alleging that the rewrites amount to a character assassination of Dury. The secrecy surrounding Langham's involvement was another factor.

I never saw the Courtyard or Edinburgh version, but the post-Langham script does Dury's story no irredeemable injustice. Hit Me! succeeded - and continues to succeed - on the strengh of its depiction of Dury as a manipulative charmer who lit up a particularly rich period of British pop history. There are jokes, played for laughs, but perhaps they are a necessary evil for a cult production making a bid for mainstream success.

The play appeals most directly to Blockheads fans but sociologists would find it compelling. Could one argue that the polio outbreak of 1949 created punk rock? It certainly helped. The young Dury probably contracted the virus at Southend's lido. It made him a chippy outsider whose mixture of charisma and viciousness had a deep impact on all those in his orbit. Sent to a boarding school for the disabled, this dreamy, well-spoken son of an Irish bohemian and an Essex bus driver was never the same after the school's brutal regime turned him into a hair-trigger Mockney irritant. Dury came to fight both friends and foes with words and lashings of eyeliner. His razor blade earring, scornful wit and habit of leaning on his mike stand for support while fronting his pub rock band Kilburn and the High Roads were witnessed by a young John Lydon. "Fuck me, that's me 20 years younger," Dury is reported to have said to Malcolm McLaren when the Sex Pistols supported Kilburn in June 1976. "What have I started?"

Hit Me! tells his compelling story on one, unchanging stage set. The play has only two modes: flashback and fighting. The first act basically consists of two London men of a certain age and disposition yelling "You faaacking caant" at one another; there is a rematch later on. This unremitting Anglo-Saxon is undoubtedly true to life, but the storytelling has moments of elegance and subtlety. Songs punctuate and illustrate the unfolding tale, satisfying the jukebox requirement inherent in all band-derived stage fare. Schiller sometimes fluffs his lyrics, but covers well. It's not hard to "do" Dury. With his physical tics, garish get-ups and coarse delivery, he is almost a caricature already. But Schiller does an admirable job of inhabiting the irascible, wounded singer, particularly considering the speed at which he had to master two hours of dense monologue and dialogue.

Schiller and Darcy are wonderfully co-dependent, bickering like a married couple as they reveal how history and happenstance got them together and how Dury's vicious streak splits them apart. We hear in anecdote form of Dury's childhood, the rise of his Blockheads, his put-upon wives and the time he turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the script for Cats.

Darcy makes for a flawed, believable Spider, a rubbish criminal who'd really rather not hit anybody. It is a shame, however, that his geezer mode can't help but recall Al Murray's Pub Landlord.

Although writer-director Jeff Merrifield is clearly a fan, Dury is never let off the hook for his callousness to friends, wives and the loyal Spider, whose job it is to stop Dury (aka "The Raspberry", from the Cockney rhyming slang for cripple, "raspberry ripple") getting his head kicked in.

Dury's fascinating story deserves a wide audience, and the frisson of controversy engendered by Langham's involvement might do this tale no disservice.


Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury at Leicester Square Theatre, review

Adrian Schiller gives a compelling performance in Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury at Leicester Square Theatre.

by Charles Spencer

The late Ian Dury in a picture taken for The Daily Telegraph in 1998

In the pantheon of British pop lyricists, Ian Dury (1942-2000) has one of the most honoured places. I would put him right up there with Lennon and McCartney and Ray Davies of the Kinks, and at his very best, he can even stand comparison with Noël Coward – though one shudders to think what the Master would have made of the rough-diamond Dury.

His songs are bawdy, streetwise and tinged with melancholy, and as much a part of Britain's tradition of music hall and variety as of the pub-rock and punk scene in which he made his mark.

"Had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina/A seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener" from Billericay Dickie is pure Max Miller, while in his lovely, idiosyncratic song Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3, I find myself reminded of such classic "list" songs as Cole Porter's You're The Top.

Dury had a shot at a stage musical himself, a show called Apples at the Royal Court in 1989, but it was a shambolic mess that flopped. Now Jeff Merrifield has come up with this serviceable though far from inspired two-hander which combines the story of Dury's life with some of his biggest hits, sung, I regret to report, to backing tapes rather than accompanied by a live band.

The show has had a bumpy ride into the West End. The actor originally playing Dury abruptly left the production and there has been controversy because Chris Langham, jailed for downloading child pornography in 2007, has been brought in as a script doctor.

Nevertheless, Dury certainly comes to vivid life in Adrian Schiller's compelling and charismatic performance which captures the raddled, limping glamour of the star who didn't let disability – he was a childhood victim of polio and couldn't walk without a leg iron – stand in the way of success.

The show largely consists of anecdotal conversations between Dury and Fred "Spider" Rowe, a spectacularly incompetent robber and former jailbird who became the star's loyal roadie and minder.

Unhappily, one's mental picture of Dury as a good-natured Jack-the-lad with a mischievous sense of humour takes a knocking. It turns out he was an often vicious drunk, a predatory womaniser and lacked generosity to his superb band, the Blockheads when times became hard.

Yet when you hear Dury's account of his time at a Dickensian school for disabled kids and listen to the sheer love of life and language that bursts from his songs, it would take a hard heart not to forgive his failings.

The swear word count is spectacularly high, as anyone who has listened to Druy's Plaistow Patricia will expect, and Schiller gets good value from the songs despite a sound system that renders too many of the lyrics inaudible.

And there is a superb supporting performance from Josh Darcy as the shaven-headed Spider who, despite his menacing appearance reveals, all the loyal generosity of spirit that Dury sometimes lacks.


Hit Me! The Life and Times of Ian Dury

By Ian Shuttleworth

Published: January 17 2009 02:00

A potentially awkward situation, this. My own words of endorsement - "Terrific stuff" - are already on posters for this two-man show, from a write-up I gave it on last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Also on the posters is an image of Jud Charlton, whose uncanny performance as pop star Ian Dury was the show's greatest asset, but who left the production shortly before this West End-ish transfer amid acrimony over script revisions. Will I have to disown my blurb?

I think, on balance, not. Adrian Schiller is well cast as Charlton's replacement; he has the same general build and cast of features as Dury, the Essex geezer who, after a childhood bout of polio, proved to be one of punk's unlikeliest bards and grew into a national treasure. As yet Schiller does not possess Charlton's astounding ease with Dury's physical and vocal idiosyncrasies in performance, but his command of the role already is remarkable.

Jeff Merrifield's script, to be honest, is not Pulitzer material. It shows signs of being bulked up to fit a two-act slot and is somewhat over-exposed in a venue of this size. Structured around meetings between Dury and his long-suffering minder Fred "Spider" Rowe in 1980 and 1990, with a coda set shortly after Dury's death in 2000, it slips fluidly between dialogue, monologue and musical numbers sung to recorded instrumental backing. But it is clunkier when it alternates between the pair's barbed repartee and dollops of biographical information. Once in a while a line thuds conspicuously: Dury and Spider's exchanges include so many Anglo-Saxonisms that, if the Catholic chapel above this basement venue had a swear box, it could feed entire communities on the proceeds from a single week's run. But no amount of fruity expletives can redeem a line such as "It was only when I was on stage that I felt exonerated ".

For all that, Merrifield has written a loving and vibrant portrait, and Josh Darcy is at once cuddly and fearsome as Spider. Terrific stuff? For what it is, yeah.

Humble Pie Footnote: I've just come back from the Antic Visionary (Sheridan Thayer's film about Ken Campbell) screening to write the editorial for the next Theatre Record. I've finished off with the following:

Still, we shouldn't be afraid of stating our opinions bluntly. I remember (no doubt incorrectly) a story about an early 20th-century critic who was pathologically unwilling to risk a forceful declaration but, after much chivvying, finally stated categorically that Sarah Bernhardt was the finest one-legged female Hamlet of the age... only to receive a letter from the writer, adventurer and rake Frank Harris stating that several years earlier, in an opera house somewhere in Brazil, he had seen a remarkable woman...
I've been reminded of this because of my own review of the Ian Dury play Hit Me!, in which I remark that writer Jeff Merrifield has written some fairly plonking lines. I singled out one in particular. Earlier this evening I bumped into Jeff, who told me with some glee that that line came word for word from Dury himself. As for me, I hopped it. Ian Shuttleworth