Although it has been suggested that this production is inspired by the life and music of Gerry Rafferty (Underwood Lane is where the songsmith grew up), fans of Stealers Wheel or Rafferty’s solo work may be surprised to discover that none of his songs actually appear here. In fact Rafferty is never mentioned. It’s more of a celebration of the colourful jukebox era when author John Byrne and his buddy came of age.
A threadbare storyline is laced with enough sassy patter to keep the audience chuckling along, while linking a series of bright and breezy musical set-pieces that build in intensity and ambition as the show progresses. Marc McMillan is Dessie – a wannabe rocker sporting a razor sharp quiff and angular zoot-suit. He joins forces with buddies Donatella and Joey to take their skiffle band to the bright lights. But, as is the way with ambitious youth, life has other ideas. Love, jealousy, twisted business deals, and impending parenthood send Dessie into a dark place.
The colourful set evokes enough signals of tin pan alley-era Paisley while acting as a (literal) scaffold for all the main scene changes and musical instruments. From the first song it becomes obvious that the cast were not only chosen for their (considerable) thespian abilities. As each takes command of the numerous instruments littering the stage – cello, saxophone, piano, guitar, bass, drum-kit – and swap around as the piece demands, it seems everyone can play everything.
The production is reminiscent of those political musicals the Wildcat theatre company used to tour in the 80’s and 90’s, so it seems quite apt that a stalwart of such projects, George Drennan, has found his way to this stage. As the sweariest priest in Christendom he not only anchors the frantic pace, but brings a vast compendium of musical skills, including the almost mystical ability to play piano and trumpet at the same time: left hand on keyboard, right on the valves.
Inspired musical arrangements by Hilary Brooks also bring drama, niftiness and joy to familiar 50’s and 60’s hits. Two of her many highlights include a moody version of You Got that Lovin’ Feeling which evolves into a barnstorming crescendo sending the audience into whoops and screams, and the final verse of 3 Steps to Heaven which morphs into a beautiful acapella vocal harmony intoned by the whole cast. It feels almost like Gregorian chant.
But where the riffs and rhythms swing breezily, the script feels a bit stiff and under-nourished until we head toward the denouement, where the jokes come fast and furious and Byrne rediscovers his surreal world-view. As we veer toward the final scenes we’re reminded that despite the melodrama, soaring melodies and brisk patter, we’ve actually been watching a dreamlike and divine comedy.
Images Eoin Carey.
With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.