Hit Me! The Life and Times of Ian Dury

Everyman Theatre
Written and Directed by Jeff Merrifield
9th-12th November 2010

Reviewed by Richard Lewis

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 offensive.

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.

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Comment left by simon eden - street poet on 22nd February, 2015 at 7:07
yes, i'm 52 & have been a fan of ian since i was 15 - i'm a rhyming poet & lyric writer & i got a lot of my ideas from ian dury's lyrical style - i still listen to his words & music all the time & watch youtubes of him on my computer over & over again...i surely miss him...