Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2
Opened 13 January, 2009

A potentially awkward situation, this. My words of endorsement, “Terrific stuff”, are already on posters for this 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 Dury was the piece’s greatest single asset, but who left the production shortly before this West End-ish transfer amid some 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 both his predecessor actor and (leg iron aside) Dury, the Essex geezer who, after a childhood bout with 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 as of the rescheduled press night he had been working on the role for little more than a week; his command of the role already is remarkable, and on past form he will likely settle into it hand in glove.
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 is far clunkier as 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 and house 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”. But for all that, Merrifield has written a loving and vibrant portrait; Josh Darcy is at once cuddly and fearsome as Spider, and I am confident that Schiller will shortly earn not his spurs but his calipers. Terrific stuff? For what it is, yeah.
[Footnote: apparently that "exonerated" line is an actual quotation from Dury.  Well done, Ian.]

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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