Underwood Lane review – John Byrne’s rock’n’roll musical has pure heart
John Byrne is not a playwright you associate with jukebox musicals. The Slab Boys author – who, as a painter, is being celebrated in a retrospective at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove – has always had the popular touch. In his TV series Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart, he also made much of his love of popular song. But he has never before placed music as centrally as it is in Underwood Lane.
Andy Arnold’s full-throttle production is not billed as such, but the jukebox musical is the form it most closely resembles. It is not only that it takes its name from the Paisley street where Byrne’s teenage pal Gerry Rafferty grew up before he found fame with Baker Street and Stuck in the Middle With You. It is also that, in its breezy tale of a 60s skiffle band skirting round the fringes of the big time, it has the same lightly plotted air as many a singalong crowdpleaser.
More than that, it has the songs. The key pleasure in Underwood Lane is in the period hits. Given appropriately spare and rugged arrangements by Hilary Brooks, they draw on that innocent period when Tin Pan Alley was fusing into rock’n’roll.
If Three Steps to Heaven and That’s Amore go down well in the first half, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long are back-to-back highlights after the interval. The actor-musicians ride the melodies with a pure heart, their harmonies sweet and their playing crisp.
That emotional input is just what is needed to offset a script that glides over its weightier themes. Take Marc McMillan as Dessie Devlin, the band’s most ambitious member. He has only the skimpiest of dialogue to support him through two funerals, a romantic split and the loss of a child. He does well, but Byrne’s black humour can seem underwritten, while his intriguing theme about the postwar mix of Catholics and Protestants in west-coast Scotland remains largely latent.
The production does, though, have funny turns to match the many funny lines – be it Simon Donaldson as a thuggish roadie or George Drennan as a foul-mouthed priest – adding up to a slight but cheerful summer entertainment.
At Johnstone town hall until 9 July, then at the Tron theatre, Glasgow, 14–30 July.