With the premiere of his play Tennis Elbow, a sequel to 1977’s Writer’s Cramp, John Byrne takes us for a walk on the distaff side. Whereas the original play was told from the perspective of the lamentable Francis McDade, a writer, who by all accounts wallowed in mediocrity, Tennis Elbow takes the point of view of his erstwhile wife the esteemed author Pamela Crichton Capers.
Byrne’s first new work in 13 years is part of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new Soundstage project. Many theatre companies have begun to put on remote performances since Covid first hit but Pitlochry Festival Theatre has boldly decided to take things a step further in presenting an entirely auditory experience. For me, and at least with this play, it seems to pay off.
With Tennis Elbow Byrne revels in the possibilities and playfulness of the English (and sometimes Latin) language. As such the lack of visual stimulus serves to bring his words into sharper focus. The dialogue, especially in the earlier Paisley set scenes, seems deliberately anachronistic and derives humour from the fact that 1930’s Paisley isn’t the place you are most likely to hear insults like “bounder’ or “rotter’.
The story of Crichton Capers life is recounted through letters, news reports, telegrams (and her own purple prose) is necessarily episodic. With live theatre performance, this potentially could have had the effect of slowing down the narrative but with Polly Thomas’s production and the immersive sound design by Alisdair McGregor things zip along nicely.
There is a charming mundane surreality that puts me in mind of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Make no bones about it, this is a wholeheartedly funny play. In the second half, someone asks Crichton-Capers how her son is doing only to be told that he is peddling drugs in Hollywood. The reply of “They do shoot up don’t they?” has a sort of razor-sharp Peter Cook panache.
The performances are across the board note-perfect. The increasingly outlandish life of Pamela Crichton Capers is, particularly in the later stages, tethered to reality by a warmly humane performance by Kirsty Stuart. Brian Ferguson impresses both as the roguish McDade and the hilariously monikered Denholm Pantaloon. Equally, Maureen Beattie sets the tone for the piece with her narrators plummy Kelvinside tones and also as her alter ego Mother Scholastica.
If I had to nitpick I’d say that the combination of the often quickfire dialogue and frequent time shifts were at times discombobulating. However, the surefire direction by Elizabeth Newman and the clearly delineated performances by the cast allows the listener to quickly orientate. I was also initially on the fence about Bryne’s frequent use of alliteration. At times it seems on the verge of outstaying its welcome but he persists with it to the point that it circles all the way back around to being funny again. I guess alliteration is one of those things you can’t do half-heartedly, you have to have the courage of your convictions!
Ben Occhipinti’s diegetic music is sparingly but effectively used and his arrangement of Don McClean’s impossibly sad Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) serves as a reminder that although our protagonist’s tale is mirth inducing, it has veins of melancholy running through it and the denouement of the play is particularly poignant.
Tennis Elbow is available to book until 8th May, more info here