Theatre reviews: Underwood Lane | Goldilocks Goes To Greece

John Byrne’s new musical shines a blackly comic light on the music business and its casualties, writes Joyce McMillan

Marc McMillan as Dessie and Dylan Wood as Gil in Underwood Lane (Picture: Eoin Carey)
Marc McMillan as Dessie and Dylan Wood as Gil in Underwood Lane (Picture: Eoin Carey)

Underwood Lane, Johnstone Town Hall ****

Goldilocks Goes To Greece, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Back in the late 1970s, John Byrne changed the face of Scottish theatre with his play The Slab Boys, a stylish, verbally dazzling riff on the cultural, personal and economic lives of three teenage lads, back in 1957, working in the paint-grinding room of a Paisley carpet factory; and at 82, he now returns to that familiar territory in his new and much-delayed musical Underwood Lane, which opened to a standing ovation at Johnstone Town Hall on Thursday.

Co-produced by the Tron Theatre and Renfrewshire arts agency One Ren, the show was inspired by Byrne’s own teenage friendship with the late Gerry Rafferty, and is set in the Paisley tenement street where Rafferty grew up. The music, though, reflects not Rafferty’s jazz-influenced sound, but rather an early-1960s pop playlist that sets the tone of a story that – despite a darkly violent twist – always remains a light-touch black comedy rather than a tragedy, a tad nostalgic for that old white working-class Scotland where it was hard to tell serious bigotry from motor-mouthed banter.

Within those limits, Byrne conjures up a sharp, fast-talking comic narrative about a brilliant young musician and song-writer, Dessie, who abruptly flees Paisley when he and his band are blagged into signing a terrible contract by their sinister manager Eddie Steeples, just as Dessie’s lovely and talented girlfriend Donna is about to give birth to his baby. Two years on, Dessie returns with reparations to make, not only to Donna and her father, but to the rest of his bandmates; and all of this is whipped up into a short but hugely entertaining show by director Andy Arnold, and a fine ten-strong company who not only act but sing brilliantly, and play a huge range of musical instruments.

Marc McMillan is a perfect, brooding Dessie with gorgeous singing voice, Julia Murray a fabulous Donna, Dani Heron brilliant and hilarious as amorous local hairdresser Maureen; and with fine actor-musicians including George Drennan, Harry Ward, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Scott Fletcher offering superb support, the company delivers a show whose huge entertainment value is never in doubt, and that also offers a vital glimpse of the impact of a musical revolution on the working-class streets of Scotland, 60 years ago.

There’s also entertainment galore at Oran Mor in Glasgow, where the Play, Pie And Pint company rounds off a remarkable season with its traditional no-holds-barred summer panto for grown-ups. Written and directed by the hugely inventive Andy McGregor, Goldilocks Goes To Greece does not aim for the sharp political edge and occasional wild poetry of Play, Pie Pint pantos of yore; but it does deliver plenty of song, dance and hilarious one-liners, as Goldie and her irrepressible mum Pat jaunt off to Greece, pursued by a bear who is not pleased by Goldie’s experiments with his household chairs, beds and porridge.

Goldie, you see, suffers from a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and has to have everything “just right” – a category that will never include the preposterously arrogant prince she encounters in Greece. It’s all pleasingly silly, and delivered with huge flair by Fraser Boyle as the Dame, Rosie Graham as Goldie, Ewan Somers as the Prince, and Rebekah Lumsden, as a very big bear played by a very small woman. The show also takes a few satisfying swipes at the recent shenanigans of the British royal family; in a joyful summer romp that should keep the wonderful Play, Pie And Pint audience foot-tapping and happy, until the next season opens in September.

Underwood Lane at Johnstone Town Hall until 9 July, and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 14-30 July. Goldilocks Goes To Greece at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 23 July.

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