First published in The Times, Saturday July 16 2022
For all his renown as a visual artist and playwright, in a career spanning five decades, John Byrne is also synonymous with rock’n’roll. Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart, the hit television serials he wrote for the BBC, both of which charted the travails of aspiring musicians, are as much remembered for their soundtracks as their storylines. Byrne also designed album covers for his friend and Paisley compatriot Gerry Rafferty, and his bands, the Humblebums and Stealers Wheel.
This new work was written in memory of Rafferty, and it contains recognisable biographical elements, including being named after a street in the Ferguslie Park community, where Byrne and Rafferty grew up. The story of a talented singer-songwriter, Dessie Devlin (a confident debut from Marc McMillan), who dreams of hitting the big time with a skiffle outfit in the early Sixties, is a familiar premise, though Byrne crams the band’s short-lived career with incident.
Over a couple of years the group, with its ever-changing name and personnel, endures creative spats, a love triangle and a surfeit of tragedy. The drama is leavened with earthy humour and moves at a lick. At times you wish the playwright, and Andy Arnold, the director, could have dabbed the brakes a little, to allow the action its due emotional weight.
If Byrne is in the end too kind and moderate a writer to dwell on real heartache, the staging of the musical numbers packs the required emotional punch. Beautifully arranged by Hilary Brooks, the musical director, and performed by the ten-strong ensemble, rotating seamlessly around an array of instruments, classics of the hit parade, from Teenager in Love to It’s Only Make Believe, underline each episode, rather than furthering the story. Meanwhile, Arnold, and Becky Minto, the set designer, convincingly bring to life a bustling community at a moment of transition.
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