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Reason to be cheerful? Hardly

Ian Dury deserves a better tribute than this musical two-hander can provide

<strong>Hit Me! The L

A melancholy overlays this tribute to he who would be hit by a rhythm stick. It is the consequence not of the polio that struck Ian Dury when he was seven, nor his subsequent ordeals in a home for convalescent children, nor even the cancer that cut short his life and that of several of his nearest and dearest. (After Dury and Eva Perón, why not Cancer: the Musical?) It is certainly nothing to do with the callipers he wore on- and offstage, hindrances to his performances neither on stage nor in bed. It is that this wonderfully sinewy lyricist (the play alleges that he turned down Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wanted him to write the book for Cats) turned out to be worth only this, a well-meaning but amateurish two-man songbook of his life, performed on as near to a fringe as the West End has.

Its scruffiness may be appropriate, for I have little idea of how Dury spent his substantial income. He may, indeed, have chosen to live in the squalor suggested on stage, a domestic calamity so complete that when he offers to make his minder a cup of tea, he cannot find the kettle. In his decades in the spotlight, however, Dury was a bigger presence than this musical makes him look: someone who not only transcended his not-quite-native Essex, but transmogrified Essex and its Billericay Dickies in their turn. Hit Me! acknowledges that he deserves more and reveals that the man himself had conceived an alternative, full-scale musical of his life. Near the end, a backdrop is unfurled depicting the Blockheads' touring bus coach that would have been its setting. It would ideally have sprouted wings, as in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Here, however, we just get his front room. The gaps between the songs are occupied by obscene badinage between Dury and his minder, Fred "Spider" Rowe, played by Josh Darcy as the spit of Al Murray. In the first act, set in Catshit Mansions, Kennington, 1980, Fred repeatedly interrupts Dury's poignant narration of his childhood with complaints about Dury hitting on his wife, Karen, an apparently saintly woman who identifies her husband's boss as an "extraordinary ordinary person". A subsequent argument is over Dury's disloyalty to his backing band, the Blockheads. These moans seem so trivial that, for a long while, I wondered why the writer-director, Jeff Merrifield, had not pared things down even further and made Hit Me! a one-man show narrated by Dury's shade. But in the second act, set a year later in the Year of the Disabled ("Stick it up your annus," reasoned Dury), Darcy delivers a beautifully funny speech about threatening to bite off another man's penis. It has nothing to do with Dury, but lifts the act no end.

However, the piece stands or falls by its re-creation of Dury and, without being disablist, I regret to say it falls. Not only is Adrian Schiller physically unlike Dury, but he has a much harsher speaking voice. He sounds more like Harry H Corbett. He is also an inferior singer and damages even the greatest hits, "Plaistow Patricia" and "Reasons to Be Cheerful". The management must be hoping Schiller grows into the part - he had rehearsed it for only eight days the night I saw him, after the departure of his predecessor in the role, Jud Charlton, who fell out with Merrifield over Christmas. According to the London Evening Standard, Charlton walked out over alterations made to the script by the comedian Chris Langham. Merrifield insists he was fired.

The last act takes place in Fred's home immediately after Dury's death. This coda, which rashly assumes we have become as interested in Fred as Ian, is saved only by the return, in Hopkirk (Deceased) white, of Dury himself. The diamond geezer who could not walk but inspired millions to dance is, in death, freed of his callipers. This conceit is effective, but serves to remind us that his disability figures a lot more in this play than it ever did in or perception of the real man. Unfortunate, too, is the way this celebration of a great lyricist relies on the use of "fuck" and "cunt" so much that even Steven Berkoff might have edited a few examples out.

Hit Me! knows that it owes Dury more than this, but fails quite to make a virtue out of being unable to deliver.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...