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Royal Lyceum Edinburgh/Pitlochry Festival Theatre
A NEW play by John Byrne, author of the Slab Boys trilogy and BBC Scotland’s Tutti Frutti, is an event in itself and in these times of woe he has achieved the impossible with his comedy Tennis Elbow, an audio play produced by Royal Lyceum and Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
Deploying his trademark narcissism, Byrne thinly disguises his own myth in that of Pamela Crichton Capers, who breezes through life, dashing off doggerel and pornographic novels before digesting “the skinny worm of Celtic art” and becoming a painter.
She turns to eccentric religious iconography, whose success in London is achieved when she passes it off as the devoted work of an ancient Mother Superior.
The scenes unfold as letters written in locker rooms, prison cells and far-flung mizzen huts and the whole daft narrative is recounted with arch Scottish propriety by a presiding aunt at a memorial event who can’t speak without wandering into a forest of alliteration.
The letters mark the progress of a life from convent school onwards and each letter is interrupted by another woman with an absurd affectation of speech, like a misremembered dream of the past. When the heroine goes to Oxford in 1938, she is “mooners for Gwenners, when Doggers gets Anners preggers. Poor Doggers... Stiff Uppers!”
By 1942, she is stretcher bearer (2nd class) in Cairo at a hospital for Rabies, Scabies and Unwanted Babies. And so on...
Her haphazard love life flips effortlessly from pubescent lesbianism to tactical marriage and motherhood without a twinge of conscience or a whisper of maturity. That the father is Francis McDade, the hero of Byrne’s first play Writer’s Cramp, seems little more than a coincidence. Nothing is taken seriously, except elaborate ceremonies of language and a lack of money.
You feel that Byrne plays with a scene for as long as he finds it funny and then simply leaves it at that. It’s as though he can’t really be bothered with drama, with character development or social issues and only mentions them for the sake of a pun, a rhyme or a game.
And his lightness of touch is intoxicating — at one point he conjures up a lame parody of Don MacLean’s Starry Night which is in itself a wonder, a triumph of underdevelopment.
Crazy names abound — Godiva Grimes, Denholme Pantelone — and other than needing emergency funds, the most serious question the characters ask themselves is whether art is “a passport to paradise or a picnic in purgatory.”
More gentle than Spike Milligan, less surreal than Ivor Cutler, funnier, faster and more flippant than Alexander McCall Smith, Byrne confronts our traumatic times with a Scottish custard pie straight to the face.
Artful mockery served up for a world that takes itself with deadly seriousness, this unexpected and subversive comedy is more than welcome.
Runs until May 8, tickets: lyceum.org.uk
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