Written by John Byrne
Directed by Andy Arnold
Love, life, death, and a poke of chips; it’s the 60s in Scotland, West Coast Johnstone and Paisley, where the weather is temperamental, and the unshackled restrictions and attitudes of the Swinging Sixties hadn’t quite made it north of the border. But there was one thing to fall back on when all else was tough – music.
And though celebrated painter and playwright John Byrne has a rich history with music, this jukebox nature of theatre is a fledgling idea from the theatrical standpoint. Where his adoration for music has had inflexions within his tv series Tutti Frutti, never has Byrne infused such a musicality with his writing than with Underwood Land, titled after friend and Baker Street singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty. Inspired by their teenage friendship, the co-production between One Ren and Tron Theatre shapes the narrative of a young man’s lyrical ambitions around a jazz and skiffle-inspired soundtrack, not strictly taken from Rafferty, but more a collaboration of early 60s hits.
But that’s what Dessie lives for – music. Specifically in a tribute vain of Rafferty’s lyricism and singing. Dusting off a tried and tested dramatic affair, a bad record deal is seemingly the tipping point for Dessie to up and flee to London to pursue he and his recently deceased mother’s desire to turn his songwriting into a career.
And make it big he can, Mark McMillan channelling a charged and moody Paisley teen Dessie with a grandly acquainted voice, envious physicality, and a distinctly fresh cut of thread – showcasing Byrne and Becky Minto’s costume. His onstage chemistry with love interest Donna is authentic, charming, and flashes enough fire to grasp their chemistry and eventual burnout and return, Julia Murray an absolute treasure vocally, and drawing the loftier moments to a grounded realism.
You see it all on these streets, and there’s no finer place to catch the gossip than with your local hairdresser Maureen or Fazzi’s Café. And Dani Heron has a marvellous nosey yet somewhat-earnest charm as Maureen. Underwood Lane allows a brief glimpse into the lifestyle impact the musical revolution had in the working-class culture of Scotland, held together with superbly supportive ensemble performances at the hands of Harry Ward, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, and Scott Fletcher.
Limitations arise where the lyrics fall silent; in expounding the more delicate matters of the production, a peculiar lack of substance sweeps over. Expression is at the forefront of Scotland’s culture, even fending off the white male working-class attitudes. From the songs of the shipyards to the dances in cafés, emotion is the driving force of our language, our art, and literature which generates a unique sense of authority and autonomy over sentiments, a reflection of being able to control one aspect of life.
So how perplexing that Underwood Lane skirts over the hardest-hitting themes with a pace removing that guttural predetermination in significant characters. And for a show pouring its utmost into the vehemence of life, it loses nerve where emotion needs to dial up a notch for the more tragic moments. It stretches to Byrne’s morose and black humour, which when struck resonates well for the cast’s delivery, but more often is too underdeveloped to carry through to fruition. Arnold’s direction lends itself more to physical or visual humour, Dylan Wood’s Gil and George Drennan’s chain-smoking priest capitalising on their positions for the bigger, heartier laughs which draw audiences back into the show.
Nostalgic flitters, Underwood Lane has a reminiscent summer’s edge to it, resulting in hummed tunes through the rest of the evening stroll long after the bass guitars ring silently. It’s a compact, though cheerful production, which takes a much lighter step through memory lane, wondering through the ramshackle and cobbled beauty of Minto’s set design.
After a brief delay, John Byrne’s work finally opens in the town where it all began – at the Johnstone Town Hall before its venture over to Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Met with a deserving standing-ovation, Underwood Lane speaks to a community and though treads with a lighter footing than Byrne’s previous theatre-defining works (Slab Boys), secures a place in the hearts, shoulder pads, and respects of audiences.
Underwood Lane runs at the Johnstone Town Hall until July 9th
Underwood Lane runs at the Tron Theatre from July 14th – 30th
Tickets for which may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Eoin Carey