“Reasons To Be Cheerful” is an outstanding feat with actors both wheelchair-users and non- users working the stage. Through clever antics and managed confusion at the very start of the experience, the members of the audience fall into their roles as punters in an east London pub. It’s the early eighties and a band are getting ready to put on a play.The action is concentrated on one central space which imitates a typical pub stage around London’s east end even now. A wonderful live band replaces a back screen and furniture after furniture crowds around the actors putting to bed the dictate that wheelchairs and disabled people need free access to manoeuvre.
The grand scale technology heightens the onlookers’ senses through moving images and the actors’ lines on a huge backdrop screen. Sign language flows fully integrated and obvious into the play within a play.
Here we are back in Thatcher’s day with punk rock and its foul language embellishing anarchy and hatred formed in the dingy sitting rooms of impoverished Britain.
It was hard to latch on to the core of the drama. A love story was unfolding. Buttons and Cinders were evident in Doc Martens and tat. Whilst I had expected a socio-political manifesto through script, the observations of the times through the eyes of the diminishing working class were delivered through aggressive lyrics, high jumps and shouting. I remembered I was at a musical. I got over myself and insisted on being entertained. Well there I was then in the over busy set of a pantomime.
The characters were energetic but cliched; kitchen-sink drama roles revived. There was the adolescent searching for approval and tickets to Ian Drury’s gig, (most of the audience at this point asking which web-site shall I search this guy, Ian?), the P45- wielding machoman factory manager, a feisty husband-searching easy-lay, a put-upon carer/mother/wife (yawn), the miserable helpless sick dad. Thank goodness for the signing mini-skirted eye-candy actress.The rest were as dull as the kitchen-sink water.
The singer in the band , him in the wheelchair, and the band were absolutely on the money (as my alter ego, Simon Cowell, would say). The predictable bursts of song every 5 minutes were brash, grimey, and begged applause. The tanked up audience gave and gave. I left.
My mission is indeed all to do with the integrity of the theatre. Let’s remind ourselves that the Theatre Royal, Stratford east is a theatre, was built as that and advertises itself as that. It is not really a community centre, is it? It does engage increasingly with the community, local or otherwise. “Reasons to be Cheerful” was right to be staged in the heart of the east end, and its timing is perfect as we emerge cynical and angry from the damaging recession.
There is a gorgeous warmth about the place but I am not that sure that the continual stench of all-seasons seasoning snaking into the auditorium during a white punk Britain exposition doesn’t compromise the experience.