Whimsical word games in Scotland, plus the best of April’s live theatre

John Byrne’s latest, Tennis Elbow, is his first new play for 13 years
John Byrne’s latest, Tennis Elbow, is his first new play for 13 years

Tennis Elbow, Sound Stage ★★★☆☆

The astute witticism – often attributed to Churchill – “Success consists of going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm” might have been expressly penned to describe the undaunted progress, amid mounting woes, of Pamela Crichton-Capers, the deluded bohemian heroine of John Byrne’s latest play.

Byrne is a name to conjure with in Scotland, not least as an artist whose work – including a drawing of his former partner Tilda Swinton – is housed in its National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. His claim to broader attention rests chiefly on his Bafta-winning 1987 TV series Tutti Frutti, about the mishap-filled tour of a Scottish rock ’n’ roll band. Among theatre types, however, he remains revered for The Slab Boys Trilogy, a triptych of plays (1978–1982) inspired by his colourful youthful experience working in a Paisley carpet factory.

Now 81, he hasn’t written a play for 13 years. And, actually, Tennis Elbow, which streams as an audio drama as part of the Sound Stage initiative (mounted by the Lyceum, Edinburgh with Pitlochry Festival Theatre), is something of a re-gendered re-hash of his hit debut, Writer’s Cramp.

Back in 1977, at the Edinburgh Fringe, he introduced capacity audiences – including a guffawing Billy Connolly and Sean Connery – to a would-be Renaissance man (and all-round liability) called Francis McDade. The life and times of this stubborn-minded and eternally sponging figure were enacted, in loving tribute to their mentor, by “Nitshill Writing Circle”.

And the same fawning framing device is applied here, as the Circle pays homage to McDade’s wife, spiriting up – via “letters, readings and tableaux vivants” – “the true story of how female genius was at first ignored, then misunderstood, and finally triumphant in the face of adversity.” (Or maybe not so triumphant: the last re-enacted scene has the penniless unfortunate gasping her last, and firing off elaborate begging letters, at the “Convent of the Holy Shroud” in Barrhead.)

But first, we are summoned by bells back to the 1930s and the Miss Jean Brodie-esque world of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’s High School, presided over by Maureen Beattie’s prim Mother Scholastica. Petty theft, adolescent crushes and juvenile poetry are the order of the day; we’re introduced to the fondness of Kirsty Stuart’s sweetly earnest Pam for exhortative letters, complete with protracted PSs, along with several other running gags.

Lacking any kind of contextual set-up – not least to explain the original play – the piece has a natural tendency to bamboozle, and when you add its fondness for word-play and outbreaks of tongue-twisting alliteration, it might strike some as insufferable. I initially struggled to keep my ear glued to the scripted whimsy. But Byrne himself has described the text as “one-eighth you’re listening to and seven-eighths that’s ballast”. Indulge the clotted nature of the experience, and its near-hallucinogenic excess, and the sense of slog gives way to growing admiration.

All kinds of droll, pleasurable mental images are crammed in – such winning nonsense as a “portrait of Mahatma Gandhi painted on a billiard cue”, and the burning of “rubber-soled gym shoes” to keep warm. Pam studies at Oxford, suffers internment in prison as “an undesirable alien”, and makes waves on the 1960s London art scene with paintings daubed on Formica.

Byrne’s attempt to tickle us is welcome after this joy-killing year, and the liberated quality of his writing argues the case for the value of art even as it mocks the pretensions of its protagonist and warns of the poverty that awaits the artistically inclined. Elizabeth Newman directs a fine cast, to a high level of technical accomplishment. It warrants a fuller theatrical incarnation.

Until May 2, then May 7–8. Info: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com; lyceum.org.uk

Father and daughter: Stephen Rea faces Judith Roddy in Frank McGuinness's The Visiting Hour - Ros Kavanagh
Father and daughter: Stephen Rea faces Judith Roddy in Frank McGuinness's The Visiting Hour - Ros Kavanagh

The Visiting Hour, Gate Theatre, Dublin ★★★☆☆

Is time almost up for the Covid play – or, at least, for the variant (such as James Graham’s Bubble or David Hare’s Beat the Devil) that speaks to the direct experience of 2020–21?

The Gate Theatre, Dublin has just embarked on its first live stream, with – in a major coup – the world premiere of a new play by Frank McGuinness, starring Stephen Rea. It’s set at a care-home, and it catches some of the agony of protracted separation that has particularly afflicted that shielded sector of society. A confused, oldish man (Rea) has an hour-long, non-tactile meeting with the woman (Judith Roddy) who, though his confirmation is only fitful, identifies herself as his daughter.

There’s a digital screen between us and the actors, who are sitting on stage in an empty auditorium – and a physical one between them too, riveted into place at the start by two stage-hands. What cause divides the pair thus? The unnamed woman – a Geography teacher – spells it out: “The very air we breathe, that’s the new killer.” Except, of course, it’s not so new to us, and with the roll-out of the vaccine has come the prospect that care-homes might cease to be lonely, and hugging might return.

So, at one level, The Visiting Hour feels as though, even in its truncated three-day run, it’s getting in under the wire, latching on to current experience. But McGuinness, 67, is too subtle a writer to be left hanging by the thread of topicality alone. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, his response to the Beirut hostage crisis, which – starring Rea as a captive Irish journalist – made it to the West End and Broadway. Just as that work moved beyond mere literalism, exploring the psychology of a trio bound together by fate, here McGuinness is broaching something existential.

When the usual points of connection are broken, by medical diktat and a fracturing mind, a conundrum arises: how to communicate, how to relate? As with Florian Zeller’s Oscar-nominated portrait of dementia, The Father, this play never lets us stand too comfortably outside the familial fray and neatly piece things together. How much of what is said – as our pair pass the time with desultory, whimsical chatter – holds true? How much is playfully false, and whose memories can be trusted?

Rea has a brilliantly offhand way of summoning both searing directness and evasive disreputability, as he sits, slumped and grumpy-mouthed, his face partly obscured by a clownish overhang of curly hair. This wrecked figure maintains that he once came second in the Eurovision Song Contest (with attendant anecdotage about TV presenter Katie Boyle); he feebly sings, he makes terrible knock-knock jokes; but is all this put on, like the tuxedo, frilly shirt and bow-tie he has donned for the occasion?

For her part, a watchful, withheld Roddy (sitting on a bench, opposite his armchair) shows us a dutiful weekly visitor humouring the old man and needling him. “It never happened, father,” she says of Eurovision. The pair seem to make fleeting contact in a shared, fantastical description of their vanished wife and mother’s departure (carried away by golden eagle) and a fond round of the Irish folk song The Waxies’ Dargle. Then distance and estrangement resume.

Do we tire of this laid-on enigma, sick as we all are of seeing empty auditoria and makeshift digital curios? Yes – but it hooks and holds you somehow. The Visiting Hour is a work of its pandemic-struck moment, but even after the briefest of online runs, and beyond that, after Covid abates, it might still warrant a further life.

Until Saturday 24. Info: gatetheatre.ie

Bill Irwin in his one-man tribute to Samuel Beckett, the great theatrical reinventor - stream.theatre
Bill Irwin in his one-man tribute to Samuel Beckett, the great theatrical reinventor - stream.theatre

On Beckett/In Screen, stream.theatre ★★★★☆

Reviewing the British premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre in 1955, Kenneth Tynan cheered: “It is validly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, godotista.” Having spent 75 minutes in the virtual company of Bill Irwin and On Beckett/In Screen, his one-man tribute to 20th-century theatre’s foremost reinventor, recorded at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, I would declare myself Irwinista too.

The 71-year-old American actor can speak about Beckett, whom he once met, with some authority. He played the logorrhoeic Lucky in the 1988 Lincoln Centre revival of Godot, alongside Steve Martin and Robin Williams. In 2009, on Broadway, with Nathan Lane and John Goodman, he played one of the play’s tramp-figures, Vladimir.

On Beckett/In Screen duly gives us a synopsis of Godot, with a staccato-exact iteration of Lucky’s famous monologue. But although this isn’t a sentimental appraisal, fear not – nor is it a chin-stroking affair. “Mine is an actor’s relationship to this language, but it is also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains. He bears an impish resemblance to Frank Sinatra, and has a jaunty way of carrying himself, brandishing a photo of “Mr Beckett” with casual irreverence.

He covers the prose as well as the plays, beginning his rummage through the curios – ignoring well-known items such as Krapp’s Last Tape – in the year of his own birth, 1950, with the 13 short pieces (begun that year) titled Texts for Nothing. “Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t any more, I couldn’t go on,” runs the opening line of Text 1. Parading before a set of footlights, Irwin puts on a show of antic behaviour, his vocal delivery swooping between registers as his face tilts from empty-eyed smiles to passing confusion to sudden animosity.

He dips into Beckett’s novels, too, coaxing a mic-holding stand-up routine from The Unnamable (1958) and, bowler hat on head and hands in pockets, lending a vaudevillian swagger to some patter from Watt (1953): “Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need…” Every minute yields a flash of insight; there are even daring asides at the expense of the (notoriously hands-on) Beckett Estate.

As for Godot, the pronunciation of whose name he entertainingly mulls, Irwin weighs up how to say Vladimir’s plea to the errand-boy who mysteriously appears: “Tell him [Godot] that you saw me.” The emphasis could fall on that “me”, he suggests, bringing in the play’s Biblical references to the “two thieves” (one saved, one damned) and Beckett’s wartime experiences in France, where he and fellow Resistance members continually feared betrayal.

“It’s huge,” Irwin concludes, marvelling at Beckett’s play as if inside a cathedral. And it’s no small achievement that, thanks to his enactments and exegesis, we too marvel anew. I could go on.

Available until April 18. Info: stream.theatre

Lacking dramatic meat: the horoscope 'section' of the Royal Court's Living Newspaper 3 - Isha Shah
Lacking dramatic meat: the horoscope 'section' of the Royal Court's Living Newspaper 3 - Isha Shah

Living Newspaper Vol 3, Royal Court ★★★☆☆

Last year, as theatre lay smothered under the blanket of Covid-enforced closure, Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone awoke with the lightbulb idea of bringing the hallowed Federal Theatre Project and the Living Newspaper back from the grave.

One of the most eye-catching consequences of FD Roosevelt’s Depression-combatting ‘New Deal’, the Living Newspaper productions pumped vital resources into the purses of struggling artists, who concocted current affairs-based shows; subjects included dust-bowl farmers, slums and syphilis.

Attracting accusations of recurrent leftist bias, the newspapers were only presented from 1936 to 1939, when Congress pulled the plug. But they forged a trail-blazing partnership between researching journalists and risk-taking theatre-makers.

The Royal Court’s 21st century update was initially conceived to allow small numbers of visitors to move about, encountering the ‘sections’ in a variety of spaces; an online version was part of the undertaking, employing more than 60 writers and 200 freelancers overall.

The project was halted by the restrictions and lockdown last December, but has been rebooted as digital-only for the remaining four editions, albeit the material is still filmed in situ, transforming every cranny of the theatre into a performance site.

The good news is that the format intrigues sufficiently; you get emailed links to ‘stories’ over the week from a Monday/Tuesday, while the whole edition can be viewed as a bundle of videos at the weekend.

The bad news is the dearth of incisive originality and journalistic responsiveness. On the evidence of Edition 3, the enterprise feels like a golden opportunity missed to include the Kill the Bill protests or schools sex scandals. Surveying the 15 videos, I’d say that some ruthless editing is in order.

A self-indulgent spirit declares itself in the main-stage ‘Front Page’ opening number, which sarcastically reiterates Boris Johnson’s February address about “the crocus of hope poking through the frost” and retorts with bog-standard activist-rap (“F*** the machine, catastrophe reigns…”). And where is the dramatic meat? It’s not to be found in the fun but overlong horoscope section, the dating column that has a woman predictably wincing at sleazy, insensitive masculinity.

However, there are several stories which I would recommend : Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s embittered ‘obituary’ tribute (performed by Sukh Ojla) to a Covid-felled bullying patriarch and Agony Edgar, by Anthony Neilson, in which a homeless man (Tom Fisher), pathetically slumped outside the theatre, offers frayed and flip advice to comically convoluted and privileged personal problems. None of these skits feels particularly hot off the press; but I can’t help applauding the overall ambition and audacity of this theatrical fight back, teeming with renewable possibility. Roll on a zippier edition in coming weeks.

Season runs to May 2. Info: royalcourttheatre.com (£10 per edition)

Alison Reid in the Barn Theatre's staging of An Elephant in the Garden - Farrows Creative
Alison Reid in the Barn Theatre's staging of An Elephant in the Garden - Farrows Creative

An Elephant in the Garden, Barn Cirencester ★★★☆☆

Such will be the stampede to socialise as we emerge from lockdown – with hospitality venues and shops becoming the muster-stations of the stir-crazy – that what nascent interest there’s been in streamed theatre may be squashed underfoot.

Until English theatres can re-open on May 17, however, the Barn Theatre in Cirencester is displaying the fighting spirit that has made it a force to be reckoned with, by serving up a double helping of Michael Morpurgo tales to the more acutely show-starved, as well as those seeking family fare at Easter.

From April 19, it will stream the much-admired staging of Private Peaceful that was to have transferred to the West End last November. But first up from the Barn’s favourite author is An Elephant in the Garden (2010), which (like the other) is an adaptation by Simon Reade. Morpurgo, preoccupied with the need to impart, as from one generation to the next, the traumas of the 20th century, wings us from pre-war Dresden to its 1945 decimation by Allied bombs.

As with War Horse, his best-known novel (and adapted play), an animal hero accentuates the pathos of the situation: it’s the reassuring embodiment of the innocence the world has lost, put in harm’s way yet mysteriously indestructible. There is, however, a twofold disappointment here. Firstly, Morpurgo never imbues the creature, christened Marlene (after Dietrich), with the same lovability and attention-demanding centrality that Joey in War Horse has. She is given nocturnal protection at home by a kindly zoo-keeper, whose daughter Lizzie is our watchful narrator, and thereby escapes the inferno.

But thereafter she’s a sideshow. While a German-accented, dungaree-wearing Alison Reid, playing 28 roles in 60 minutes, is very good at giving subtle shape to the beast with bowed body, lumbering gait, and swaying trunk of arms, we’re a long way from the magic of Handspring’s puppetry at the National Theatre. The set-design by Max Johns, at least, does what little it can to insinuate an elephant in the room, via the suggestive shapes of a ruined grey wall.

Morpurgo became a novelist through telling tales to school-children, and something of the schoolmaster resides in his work. There’s the educative imparting of key information, the ennobling insistence on recognising ourselves in “the enemy”. Yet there’s no doubt he knows how to hook you in, fracturing the cocoon of childhood with harsh real-world incidents while offering a compensatory strangeness and excitement.

You might accuse him of converting historical suffering into the stuff of ripping yarns, and much in An Elephant in the Garden stretches credulity: narrow-escapes, young love across the enemy divide, even an encounter with a countess whose husband tried to assassinate Hitler. But the Second World War did throw up endless surprises, the terror of the bombings is succinctly relayed via blast-effects and cowering postures, and the piece has one foot in the truth: while animals died at Dresden Zoo, there was an adopted baby elephant at Belfast Zoo, smuggled home in 1941 during the Blitz. Truth can be as strange as fiction.

Reid has toured this work to several venues in the past, and it shows in her fleet shape-shifting and command of the material. The only thing missing, of course, is an audience to play to: her frantic make-believe is a lonely sight. Not much longer now.

From Friday until April 18. Info: barntheatre.org.uk