John Byrne – playwright, painter, screenwriter, costume and set designer – is truly one of Scotland’s greatest ever polymaths. This fact is reflected, not only in this world premiere of his play-with-songs Underwood Lane (a co-production between Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and One Ren, the arts and culture arm of Renfrewshire Council), but also in the substantial and superb retrospective of Byrne’s paintings (titled John Patrick Byrne: A Big Adventure) which is currently on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
Byrne is much loved for Tutti Frutti (the 1987 BBC mini-series that launched the careers of Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane). From that hit show to Underwood Lane, Byrne has remained faithful to the rock ‘n’ roll music and aesthetics that shaped his working-class youth in the then textile town of Paisley.
Underwood Lane is dedicated to Byrne’s friend, the late singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty (who was born on the Paisley street of the play’s title). The drama, which is set in the early-1960s, traces the increasingly tempestuous lives of a group of young people who dream of making it big in the music business.
Byrne’s characters – such as Dessie Devlin (a good looking and talented Scots-Irish singer-songwriter, very much like the young Rafferty himself) to his lovely, Scots-Italian girlfriend Donna Fazzi– reflect the writer’s extraordinary capacity for creating stage personas that are simultaneously archetypal, yet beautifully nuanced. Like the playwright’s Paisley trilogy The Slab Boys, the drama takes us to a Paisley that is seen through the bold, colourful haze of a youthful and unusually creative memory.
As Dessie’s promising skiffle band The Crescents is preyed upon by snake-like music promoter Eddie Steeples (Santino Smith on tremendously slithery form), the talented, 10-strong cast of actor-musicians treat us to a series of brilliantly performed songs of the period. From The Everly Brothers’ Crying in the Rain to I've Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding, the gloriously nostalgic jukebox score (assembled by Byrne, music director Hilary Brooks and stage director Andy Arnold) is woven brilliantly into the narrative.
Marc McMillan’s fine-voiced, guitar-playing Dessie and Julia Murray’s fabulously sung saxophonist Donna are typical of a remarkably accomplished ensemble. Simon Donaldson’s hilarious, thick-headed enforcer Frankie and Harry Ward’s irascible local businessman Mr Fazzi also shine.
The story that unfolds contains the vitality of youth energised by post-Second World War optimism. It is also punctuated by death, loss, regret and violence.
Whether it is George Drennan’s hilarious, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking priest Father Durcan or Dani Heron’s hairdresser and singer Maureen (whose jealous antipathy towards Donna is as humorous as her conspicuous infatuation with Dessie), the comic writing is an absolute joy. Few dramatists (Quebec’s master playwright Michel Tremblay aside) share Byrne’s extraordinary ability to have an audience laughing almost constantly at a play that includes four deaths, violent gangsterism and religious bigotry.
The drama is played on designer Becky Minto’s improbably versatile scaffold set (which stands in evocatively for the grey tenements, greasy-spoon cafes and all-important hair salons of Byrne’s proletarian Paisley). The design is brilliantly suggestive of both the reassuring sense of community and the genuinely sinister edge of the place.
Inevitably, the production is graced with superb costumes, designed by Byrne and Minto, that are vividly redolent of the writer’s American-influenced, style-conscious youth. The electric blue teddy boy jacket and matching brothel creeper shoes worn by Dessie in the first act are particularly memorable.
It is 16 years since Byrne wrote Underwood Lane. As Arnold’s perfectly-pitched, bitter-sweet premiere proves, it is a classic of the writer’s remarkable dramatic oeuvre
At Tron Theatre, Glasgow until July 30. Tickets: 0141 552 4267; tron.co.uk