Adrian Schiller, Josh Darcy
written and directed by
Shows about the lives of singers and song-writers are very much in vogue at the moment.
There’s Piaf, which transferred from the Donmar to the Vaudeville Theatre, Newley, which recently appeared at Highgate’s Gatehouse, and now we have Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury.
But unlike both Piaf and Newley, Jeff Merrifield’s show which started life at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe before enjoying a brief spell at Hoxton’s Courtyard Theatre does not present Dury’s life from birth to earth, or include all of the major players within it.
Rather, it presents three scenes from his life (and one following his death), and features just one other character: Dury’s ‘minder’, Fred ‘Spider’ Rowe.
Realism is seldom striven for, and though each scene is set at a different time and in a different location, all of them take place on one all-purpose set that never changes. This consists of scaffolding and lights to depict a stage, pieces of furniture and general mess to capture Dury’s abode, and a microphone and sign to represent his recording studio.
We hear about Dury’s life and values through conversations between Ian and Fred that recall certain events, and also through monologues. In this way, performance genres are unashamedly mixed as both characters are often deep in conversation before one suddenly turns to address the audience alone. Indeed, when Fred’s own monologue lasts too long, Ian simply interjects with ‘Excuse me, but it is my name in the title!’
Josh Darcy as Fred revealed how Dury slept around, neglected his band (The Blockheads), and frequently abused people when drunk. In doing so, however, Darcy made it easy for us to appreciate how a figure who was frequently left to carry the can for Ian, ultimately found it easy to love both the man and the lifestyle that went with minding him.
New to the title role, Adrian Schiller (replacing the actor who originally played Dury amidst some controversy, a situation further muddied by Chris Langham’s involvement with the project) gave a fine performance, showing how the combination of a wealthy bohemian mother, polio (which aroused some sympathy in people), an assertive character, and a talent for song writing, all went to produce the man that we saw before us. Intermittently, he would burst into song, with the transition from drama to cabaret working surprisingly well. This was partly because each number tied in with the points that had just been made about Dury, and partly because they were performed so convincingly. It was a nice touch that, as Ian sang his most famous number, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Fred harangued the audience shouting ‘You actually bought this song, didn’t you?’
But in spite of all this, the show felt slightly limited in its scope and occasionally out of its depth in a West End venue. The first two scenes were set in 1980 and 1981 when Dury was at the height of his game, and the third in 1990 when he was at a low point. All of them, however, seldom went beyond presenting him as a disagreeable, selfish and aggressive man. Though the show was all about looking beyond Dury’s outward persona, the limited number of points made about him made Ian seem far from (in Fred’s words) ‘multi-layered’.
Until the end, that is. In the final scene, Fred, on hearing of his death, declared that though Ian was always a ‘c**t’ (be warned the word is frequently used), he then ‘lapsed’ in his final years and set about providing for The Blockheads. Learning late on how there was more to Dury’s character certainly strengthened the show and meant that as he ‘posthumously’ performed There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards and (once again) Hit Me in a rousing finale, I found myself genuinely forgiving most of the failings of both the man and the show.