Even dead, Ian Dury keeps making trouble. Hit Me! (as in "with your rhythm stick") hit the news before its West End opening when its star at the Edinburgh Festival, and in a subsequent fringe run last year, left amid claims that he had done so because of the involvement of Chris Langham, a convicted sex offender.
The new Dury, Adrian Schiller, does a more than plausible imitation – there's the slender frame, the alternately smooth and pugnacious manner, the raspy, laid-back voice, like the Big Bad Wolf on Quaaludes, and the mocking, detached style of performance (in one number, he chews gum while he sings).
But, now at double the length that it was in Edinburgh, the show has not added depth to its lightweight, bloke-ish survey of Dury's life. In matching his rebellious lyrics with tales of reckless behaviour, it instead presents a cold, crude picture of one of our most endearing anarchists.
Jeff Merrifield, the writer and director, pairs Dury with Spider Rowe (Josh Darcy), the incompetent burglar who became Dury's tour manager and bodyguard. We hear from Dury about his childhood with a genteel mother and aunts, the polio that crippled one arm and leg (Schiller wears a leg brace and a black glove with his pearly-king coat or checked fedora).
The illness sent Dury to an institution that he says was part school, part hospital, and all prison, which sounds little different from the actual prison where Rowe lost teeth and broke ribs defending himself. Their emotions recollected in hostility, the two gleefully recount one incident after another in which Dury gets drunk and throws food or a punch, or makes a woman cry. But the stories are not amusing or revelatory – we could be listening to any two middle-aged men in a pub chuckling at what Rowe calls "rascal behaviour" and that anyone else would call a nuisance.
Merrifield, whose dialogue has the same short noun or present participle in practically every line, has no interest in Dury's sensitive side, which, rather than the thuggish one, was responsible for his lyrics.
There is no mention of Dury's talent as a painter, no more than a namecheck for his two wives, and almost nothing about his many other women ("I've never had a problem with going up to somebody and asking for a shag – obviously, politely"). The sober Dury, impish and courtly, is hardly visible here, nor is the ironist. The Dury we see here would have celebrated, rather than sent up, Billericay Dickie and his back-seat amours with the likes of Nina, the "seasoned-up hyena." A grotesquely unfunny take-off of a female TV presenter leaves one feeling that Merrifield's attitude toward women is not just skittish but misogynistic.
Filled with a grid of blue and green lights, old LPs, and empty bottles, the depressing stage is flanked by small screens that are hardly used at all. They come to life only to illustrate the crashingly insensitive International Year of Disabled Persons (1981), which Dury countered with a song in which he proclaimed, "I'm Spasticus Autisticus... I wiggle when I piddle/ 'Cos my middle is a riddle... I dribble when I nibble/ And I quibble when I scribble." The BBC banned it but, Dury says, "The spastics loved it!"
Though it's certainly authentic for the recorded musical accompaniment to drown out Schiller's voice, rock'n'roll realism might have been altered a bit, considering that we're told several times of Dury's brilliance as a lyricist.
It might also be a good idea to keep the bar at the rear of the auditorium open during the show – not only as a gesture to the music hall, whose influence can be heard in Dury's cheeky songs, but also to provide some alcoholic benevolence to counter the cheerlessness onstage.
The man who, with "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll," gave England a triad to stand proudly beside the Viennese "wine, women, and song" deserves better than this "tribute" that, in removing the qualities that separated him from his small-minded admirers, drags him down to their level, the better to embrace him.
www.leicestersquaretheatre.com, 0844 847 2475. To 14 FebruaryReuse content