As a lyricist, Ian Dury had few equals in the 20th century

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

National Theatre at Home: Coriolanus

Donmar Warehouse, via YouTube

Reasons to be Cheerful

Theatre Royal Stratford East, via, until 3 August

The National Theatre’s programme of livestreamed shows continues with the Donmar’s 2014 production of Coriolanus

starring Tom Hiddleston. The play is not a favourite. The story concerns a victorious Roman general who accepts the role of consul but when his political career falters he takes revenge by befriending his defeated enemy, Aufidius, and marching on his own city. There’s too much bitterness and aggression here, and no romantic sentiment at all. The only significant male/female relationship is between the great conqueror and his preening, pushy mother, Volumnia, who boasts about her son’s triumphs as if they were scouting badges or gold stars won for laying out the nature table. Coriolanus is an unsatisfactory tragic hero. He’s sulky, arrogant and emotionally limited. When he’s outmanoeuvred in the Senate he denounces politics as cant and betrays his homeland by siding with his former enemies. And he can never shake off his self-regard, even when his generalship is being praised by his fellow Romans. ‘I have some wounds upon me,’ he brags, ‘and they smart to hear themselves remembered.’

Hiddleston is riveting. Athletically built, physically agile, he can deliver real heft to lines like ‘brave death outweighs bad life’. He rallies his troops with savage put-downs. ‘You souls of geese that bear the shapes of men.’ Sprinting into battle he dares his foes to ‘stain all your edges on me’. Not many Shakespearean actors look tasty enough to win a fight in a pub car park. Hiddleston does. And in Coriolanus’s quieter moments he has a soft, warm, beguiling voice. Is he world class, though? An Olivier or a Gielgud? Not quite.

Director Josie Rourke uses a dark, broody palette and creates a fast-paced version that looks like a low-budget movie set in a warehouse. To compensate for the lack of romance she adds some playful homoeroticism. Hiddleston, after a battle, strips off his blood-soaked armour and washes himself in a silvery cascade of water dramatically lit from above. Later, when he and Aufidius form their doomed alliance, the two men share an awkward full-lipped kiss. The show was broadcast live to a global audience of 20,000. But the NT has already withdrawn it from YouTube. Very puzzling to see the National Theatre punishing play-goers by starving them of drama.

Reasons to be Cheerful, by Graeae, is a juke-box musical based on the songs of Ian Dury. The show has no desire to become a slick, worldwide hit like Mamma Mia! or We Will Rock You. Instead it sets out to capture the grimy, hard-bitten cynicism of London in the early 1980s. And it succeeds, (except that in those days no one said ‘you knee’ when they meant ‘university’).

We meet a lovelorn teenager, Vinnie, who needs to impress a girl by getting tickets to a sold-out gig. That’s the entire plot and it’s enough to sustain our interest because the story gets regular adrenaline-boosts from the infectious toe-tapping funk/soul tunes written by Dury and his band, the Blockheads. The cast and the musicians are on-stage throughout and this relaxed approach makes the show feel like an improvisation at a house party. Scattered across the stage are visual references to the songs: cigarette adverts, nightclub signs, images of London buses, and, of course, Fulham Broadway Station. Various members of the cast take on the role of Dury. John Kelly, the pick of the bunch, is a wonderfully soulful crooner with a terrific presence.

As a lyricist, Dury had few equals in the 20th century. He delved into popular culture and came up with songs like ‘England’s Glory’ (named after a brand of matches), which is an ingenious love letter to working-class life filled with brilliant vernacular rhymes.: Frankie Howerd/ Noël Coward… Walnut Whips/ Stafford Cripps… garden gnomes/ Sherlock Holmes… Robin Hood/Yorkshire pud.

He expressed his interest in sex with slyly innocuous language. In ‘Wake Up and Make Love With Me’ he coined a new phrase, ‘the gift for womankind’, to refer to his morning erection. His song ‘Billericay Dickie’ recounts the attractions of Nina in a Cortina: ‘A seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener.’ His famous anthem ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ sounds like an ooh-er-missus music-hall number but it contains no sexual references at all.

Much of the work is done by the audience’s imagination. ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, his most controversial hit, was written as a protest against the UN which had proclaimed 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons. Dury felt that this demeaning gesture would increase divisions between his community and the able-bodied. The song — which includes the lyric ‘I wibble when I piddle/ Cos my middle is a riddle’ — was instantly banned by the BBC. But it resurfaced in 2012 when it was played at the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games. The performers on that occasion were Graeae led by John Kelly.

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