Talking to Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company, who are presenting the musical based on the life of singer Ian Dury.
How long have you been working with Graeae?
“I’ve been at Graeae for almost twenty years but on some days it feels it was only yesterday when I started. Everything keeps changing and that’s what I love about this company. We have never just sat there and said ‘Yeah, yeah, we know how to do it’. Every new show, every new cast, every new funding application, it’s all new, it’s all different and it keeps it exciting and motivated.
“I never thought that we would do Ensemble or our actor training course. I never thought we’d do The Missing Piece. I never thought we’d do something as big as Prometheus – I didn’t do that, Amit directed that, but it’s a big show for Graeae. Working with volunteers, which we had never done before. Everything keeps evolving, changing, developing. The challenges are, with the economics of this society, fundraising, Arts Council, so we’re never really allowed to stop.
We just have to keep moving, and evolving, and changing, because the world changes so it’s an ongoing challenge, and I love it, I cannot imagine being anywhere else in the world. We have this beautiful building, I have the most extraordinary staff – we are a team, we are a family, and we do work that is interesting, different and massively diverse. So, twenty years feels like five minutes.”
How much has changed in the industry since you started?
“One of the things we’ve been campaigning and campaigning for is real full equality of stages, and that has been shifting. When I first started we were in really wonderful small venues, and then as more venues became more accessible, physically accessible and more importantly attitudinally accessible, we had more playing spaces. Bigger playing spaces, bigger audiences, bigger connections.
“Now, the Arts Council are funding disability arts very, very well. So, there’s a lot more of us; more companies out there, which is brilliant! We’ve got Ramps on the Moon; big repertory theatres with Graeae doing big shows with fully inclusive cast using the aesthetic of access in the way that Graeae does. So, the word is getting out there. Actually as a community we are not a community that sits still and waits for things to happen we are very, very proactive and we are all fighting for full change and I think in theatre it’s happening.”
Why do you think Reasons to be Cheerful has such an enduring appeal? Why does Reasons to be Cheerful keep coming back?
“Because it’s fab, it’s Ian Dury, the team love it. It has that real hunger to do something because we desperately, desperately need a reason to be cheerful in this current climate and the show really brings a team of people together who have got a lot to say and are real anarchists. This time we decided to bring it back (A) because we need a reason to be cheerful, but (B) because the cast are all getting a little bit older, so we were wondering how many more years can we eat out of them.
“We are calling it the last ever tour, but in my heart of hearts I will all be doing it again! I think what we might do, maybe in ten years time, have them all as older people saying to their kids ‘This is how we did it’ and then the kids act out the story.
“There’s always going to be a reason to do Reasons. It has such appeal for the cast, Graeae and for audiences because of its simple purposes. It’s a memorial, what they set up for Vinnie’s dad who died. So, they go back and tell the story of trying to get to the Ian Dury gig because Vinnie wanted to take his dad to his last-ever gig and it’s about what happens after/during that.
It’s about love, it’s about family, it’s about education, it’s about friendship, about flirting, it’s about bosses who are totally awful. But, fundamentally it’s about love and family. Even if you don’t really like Ian Dury, it doesn’t really matter because if you are part of a family and most of us are, thankfully, part of families, you get it. It’s for anybody who has ever fallen in love, and hopefully everyone has at some point fallen in love, they get it. Anybody who has ever suffered loss, death.
“It has so many of those human, human things, that’s what the play is about and that it has got the complete anarchy of Ian Dury’s songs in and around it. So, we ask the audience to come in and be part of this memorial. And with us, they eat quicker through the show, they are part of a whole thing. So, with them as actors and as the audience, we create one massive family.
Have you always been a fan of Ian Dury and the Blockheads?
“As a young person, I did love Ian because he looked so different. He never, never apologised about who he was, disabled, ‘I can be whatever I want’. So, for you, growing up deaf or disabled, not having any real role models, seeing him was brilliant. My sister used to write down the lyrics for me so that I could access the words. My dad hated him, so of course I was going to love him even more! He was a Graeae patron, he gave the company a lot of support and when he died my partner at the time said, ‘You really need to do something to honour him’, and that’s why we have Reasons.”
How involved have Ian family and the Blockheads been in the process?
“The Blockheads or as I should sign Blockheads! gave us their absolute endorsement from the start and so did the Dury family, his children Jemima and Baxter. They have just been there for us and so to have that real endorsement feels like such a responsibility to get it right. When they finally came to see it, I sat just behind them so all the Blockheads were there and I was thinking ‘Oh, please, please!’ and then they were drumming, singing along underneath it.
“Jemima said ‘Jen, thank you so much! I always said to my dad Hit Me should be sung by a woman!’ and in our show, it’s Janine who sings it and it’s so sexy, it’s wonderful! So, getting that form of endorsement really did mean something.”
Do you think there is enough work like Reasons to be Cheerful that tours the country and goes to regions?
“I think at the moment with Ramps on the Moon that has just done a massive tour all over the UK and with Reasons touring it does feel like there is stuff going out there. The Arts Council have given funding to this thing called Unlimited so that means smaller companies can start doing their tours regionally as well. So, we are, we are out there.
“There is still not enough, you know if you think how many theatres there are in the country and how many in proportion to how many disabled artists there are but we are getting there, we really are getting there and for this particular show we are going back to Derby, going to Southampton – we’ve never been there before! And we are going to Coventry which feels really, really important because that’s where Graeae was born. So, it’s sort of like we are going home, which is nice.”
Are you looking forward to getting back into rehearsals?
“Am I looking forward? No, not really…I can’t wait! I cannot wait! I am beyond excited – there’s a new cast, a new ending, a very, very tall saxophonist, a brand-new set design which is completely just like anarchy in itself. I can’t wait! And Paul the writer is just writing me some new bits and pieces. I can’t wait to go back into rehearsals. Roll on the 14th August!”
What should audiences expect from the production?
“They should just expect to have a really good time. A really good time to be moved, there will be tears and it’s hugely funny and audience’s bodies will move, they’ll move and by the end they will want to get up and dance. That is why it’s always been difficult to define, it’s not musical theatre. Is it a play? Or is it a gig? It’s a beautiful hybrid of both of those things. Like I have said before, there is something there for everyone and it’s a good, good night out. It’s sex, drugs and rock and roll. Come on!”
Reasons to be Cheerful plays on the Main Stage at the Belgrade Theatre on Friday 8th & Saturday 9 September. Tickets are available now by calling the Belgrade Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk.
Front pic: Micha Theiner