Underwood Lane review – John Byrne’s devilish divine comedy hits the right notes
In interviews, playwright and artist John Byrne talks of having absorbed everything he needed in life during his early years in his home town, Paisley. Woven into the rich pattern of place were the friends he made, among them the singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, whose later hits would include Baker Street and Stuck in the Middle with You (Byrne provided artwork for Rafferty’s albums). This musical play, newly co-produced by Tron Theatre Company and OneRen, although written over a decade ago, celebrates those early, skiffle-band days in and around Paisley’s Underwood Lane.
The period tone is nailed by sharp costumes (Byrne and Becky Minto, who is also the scaffold-set designer) and 60s pop hits (deft arrangements by Hilary Brooks for the 10-strong actor-musician combo – rights to Rafferty’s music were unobtainable). A canny cast, as directed by Andy Arnold, keeps larger-than-life characters just the right side of caricature as they deliver this blackly comic coming-of-age drama. Talented, ambitious Dessie (Marc McMillan) joins band, falls in love, signs disadvantageous record contract, walks out on pregnant girlfriend (Julia Murray’s fierce Donna), heads for bright lights, big city, hits the skids, returns home to face the music.
Byrne’s story has the exuberance of Fellini or Joyce, the alienation of Camus
Not surprisingly, from the writer of hit BBC TV series Tutti Frutti, the fit with actual, everyday reality is loose. Byrne’s story has the exaggerated exuberance of Fellini’s Amarcord or James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, cut with the dislocated alienation of Albert Camus’s novella L’Étranger and liberally gritted with west of Scotland, industrial-town street swagger and fast patter. As Dessie ricochets between the neon lights of church crucifix and dance-hall signs, there’s a glimpse of the play as morality tale – a soul’s journey via earthly temptations (dangled by Santino Smith’s diabolical manager) to redemption (George Drennan’s chain-smoking priest, liberally asperging spiritual guidance with bar-room demotic).
Above all, Underwood Lane offers a playfully devilish divine comedy and a good night out.
Underwood Lane is at the Tron theatre, Glasgow, until 30 July