Hit Me! The Life
and Times of Ian Dury
Written and Directed by Jeff Merrifield
9th-12th November 2010
At the time of his death from cancer in March 2000, Ian Dury was a national
treasure. His inspired, occasionally heartfelt, frequently vicious lyrics
and indelible live performances saw him become a bona fide pop star in
the late 1970s at the age of thirty-six. Credited with coining the term
‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ in his hit of the same name,
Dury won huge acclaim from fans, critics and fellow musicians alike with
even John Lydon - a man stingy with his praise - hailing Dury as a ‘true
artist’. Meanwhile The Blockheads, Dury’s backing band, were
superb musical alchemists whose eclectic palate included funk, music hall,
big band and punk. Their superbly idiosyncratic canvas allowed Dury ample
room to paint his lyrical vignettes resulting in some of the most memorable
tracks of the era.
The singer’s influence on the current generation of musicians ten
years after his death most notably on Damon Alban is beyond doubt. Last
year saw the release of Sex and Drugs and
Rock and Roll, a big screen adaptation of the Dury’s life,
brought to the screen in an acclaimed portrayal by Andy Serkis.
A two-hander with a sparse set, Hit Me!
sees Mark White take on the role of the singer with Josh Darcy portraying
his long-suffering road manger/minder Fred ‘Spider’ Rowe.
Constructed around reminisces of the two men about their formative years
and the huge success of The Blockheads, the action begins in ‘Cat
Shit Mansions, Kennington, 1980’ and a scene of complete squalor
in Dury’s flat as the two row over the state of their crumbling
relationship. The opening scenes almost resemble a dialogue from Peter
Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek and Clive
sketches as they scream obscenities at each other over money, botched
business decisions, misplaced loyalty and seething resentment at having
worked at close quarters for so long.
The play highlights the co-dependant relationship that existed between
Dury and Spider for many years, despite the antagonisms and fallings-out
that occurred along the way. Jeff Merrifield’s rendering of the
singer’s life pulls no punches and tackles the singer’s personal
and professional crises head on. As Dury, White is absolutely mesmerizing,
expertly replicating the singer’s gait, mannerisms and most importantly
his speaking and singing voice with uncanny accuracy. Delivering the eleven
tracks that are included in the production live and amplified over the
original backing tracks, he inhabits the role of Dury brilliantly.
The singer’s heavy drinking once success reared its ugly head gives
rise to an alter-ego Spider nicknames ‘Tom’ that took hold
of Dury once drunk. ‘Spider’ (real name Fred Rowe), a reformed
criminal, had stumbled into working for Dury as he drove the band to gigs.
Upgraded to the role of tour manager and responsible for ensuring the
band stuck to their itinerary, the ex-army man followed his brief with
military precision, leading to many clashes with the singer. Reliant on
Spider to extricate himself from any potential trouble he found himself
in, as Spider, Darcy is equally impressive. Imbuing the ex-convict with
enough aggression to make him seem like a man dangerous to cross, he tempers
this with an inarticulate honesty that makes him sympathetic to the audience.
Featuring a healthy dose of black humour - a facet the man himself excelled
in - the play depicts Dury affectionately, but critically, placing the
man’s music and his outstanding lyrics front and centre. Struck
down with polio at the age of seven and not expected to survive, the singer
never sought pity from his audiences and lambasted the 1981 International
Year of the Disabled campaign by the United Nations as “patronizing”.
His musical riposte to the event, Spasticus
Autisticus, incurred the wrath of a BBC ban on the grounds of being
1978’s New Boots and Panties!
album and the ensuing hit singles over the following three years saw Dury
become hugely feted as a musician, yet the London College of Art graduate
turned his hand to other things. The singer’s success as an actor,
painter and speaker lead to accusations from Spider that he has abandoned
his bandmates and acted coldly towards them. The two come to a rapprochement
however and the Dury and The Blockheads star rose again in the late 1990s.
An excellent production, at turns powerful, funny and at times extremely
poignant, the play is a fitting tribute to one of most compelling musicians
to have ever come out of the UK.