Renowned Scottish artist and writer John Byrne, the creator of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, has spoken of his relief that he will finally see a brand new play brought to the stage – more than 15 years after he wrote it.
Underwood Lane, which is based on his experiences of growing up in Paisley in the 1950s and 1960s, will finally be unveiled just months after Byrne turns 80.
It will receive its world premiere in the Renfrewshire town next summer before a run at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.
Billed as a “musical play”, it will chart the fortunes of a young skiffle band trying to make their way in the music industry and is set against the background of the religious divide in Scotland at the time.
Byrne, one of Scotland’s best-known polymaths, will be joining forces with designer Becky Minto to create the stage sets for the show, which will be staged in honour of Byrne’s friend Gerry Rafferty, the late Paisley-born singer-songwriter, who was brought up in a tenement in and around the real Underwood Lane in Paisley, which has been all but demolished.
It was originally intended to use his music, however Byrne was unable to obtain the rights. Instead. Underwood Lane’s 10-strong cast will perform classic songs from the era, under the musical direction of Hillary Brooks, whose previous theatre credits include Sunshine On Leith and Glasgow Girls.
Publicity material for the show promises that it will be in the “vintage style” of The Slab Boys trilogy, which helped shoot Byrne to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and will feature “style, fierce love rivalry, broken hearts, dodgy dealers, religion, sex and death”.
Byrne, who will be honoured with a big birthday bash at the new Paisley Book Festival in February, said: “It’s 15 years since I wrote Underwood Lane. The original idea was to write the script for a musical based on Gerry Rafferty’s back catalogue. I wrote a scene a night. It was the fastest I ever wrote anything. It’s very dark in parts but also very funny.
“I gave it the title Underwood Lane as that was where Gerry Rafferty was born in Paisley. The whole show is actually set there. But it didn’t go anywhere at all. I spent a lot of time trying to find a producer for it. I just couldn’t get anyone interested in it. I couldn’t get the rights to use Gerry’s songs. It was actually my wife, Jeanine, who asked me why I was trying to shoehorn songs from the 1970s into a play set in the 1950s and 1960s. It was like a bolt of lightning.
“The two main protagonists are 19-year-old guys who live cheek by jowl in Underwood Lane but hardly know each other, because one goes to a Protestant school and the other goes to a Catholic school. The story is about what happens when they form a band. I’m very pleased and relieved to get to this point – it’s been a long haul.”
Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre, will be directing Underwood Lane, which he had been developing with Byrne as part of Paisley’s failed bid to become the UK’s next City of Culture in 2021.
Arnold said: “I was very surprised no-one had taken Underwood Lane on before I read it. It covers the same vintage territory as The Slab Boys. It’s set in the same era and the characters will have that familiar Teddy Boys look. John has that ability to write good populist drama where you have great humour and farcical situations one minute and tragedy the next.”