Artist and playwright John Byrne on new play and growing up in Paisley
DURING his time mixing powdered paint in the slab room of the Stoddard’s Carpet Factory in Elderslie, John Byrne used to take an unofficial break from working when his gaffer wasn’t around to practise on a second-hand banjo.
He then bought himself an Epiphone Elvis Presley guitar for £15 – which in the early 1960s was a princely sum.
Despite hours of pratice, his performing career never took off because he could only ever play three chords, and his first love was always going to be drawing and painting, unlike the hero in his latest musical play.
Underwood Lane premieres at Johnstone Town Hall, today, Thursday, July 7.
The play is in memory of Byrne’s long-time friend and fellow Paisley Buddie, Gerry Rafferty, who died nine years ago and grew up in the town’s Underwood Lane.
The show, a co-production between the Tron Theatre Company and OneRen, is set in the late 50s and early 60s telling the story of pals, Dessie, Donnatella and Joey, who form a skiffle band and try to make the big time.
It’s also a tale of fierce love rivalry, broken hearts, dodgy dealing, sex and death.
The show, directed by Andy Arnold, was originally to be staged two years ago, at Paisley Arts Centre, but Covid caused its postponement and now the Arts Centre is undergoing a major refurbishment as part of Renfrewshire Council’s capital investment programme.
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Following the performances at Johnstone Town Hall on July 7, 8 and 9, the show will move to the Tron Theatre, in Glasgow, for a run between July 14 and 30.
Underwood Lane is supported by Future Paisley, the wide-ranging programme of activity led by Renfrewshire Council which aims to use Paisley’s rich cultural story to transform its future.
Byrne himself grew up in the Ferguslie Park housing scheme only a mile or so away from Underwood Lane where the Rafferty family lived.
He became friendly with Gerry Rafferty’s older brother, Jim, who worked beside him in the slab room at Stoddard’s.
One of Byrne’s most iconic theatrical works was The Slab Boys, based on his time there.
Byrne admitted: “Playing guitar was just a hobby for me and the difference with Gerry was that he turned his hobby into millions of pounds.
“I was always going to be an artist. As my mother used to say, I was drawing while I was still in the pram. I can’t remember when I started to draw and it’s as if I’ve been drawing all my life.”
Paisley has always been central to Byrne’s creativity and he’s delighted the world premiere of Underwood Lane is going to be in Renfrewshire.
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He said: “Paisley made me and I had absorbed everything that happened to me when I was growing up in the town.
“I was about 14 or 15 years old and had an epiphany travelling on the bus heading home to Ferguslie Park.
“The bus drove down Well Street, past Underwood Lane, ironically; went through Craigielea; up our street, Dalskeith Road and turned a corner to park at the terminus.
“At that very moment I looked out the window and it dawned on me that I had everything – every piece of information – I would need for the rest of my days.
“My experiences living in Paisley has dominated and been a great gift to me.”