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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Underwood Lane (Tron Theatre)

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Retro Music and Retro Writing in John Byrne's Long-awaited Musical

Being postponed can be a death knell for exciting new works, let alone being postponed twice. But after waiting over two years for John Byrne’s latest work it is clear the same is not true for Underwood Lane. Sold-out performances, posters all over Glasgow in Byrne’s signature art style, and scripts for sale at the venue suggest that this is a show destined to become as beloved as Byrne’s previous work, The Slab Boy Trilogy. Both the design and the story are firmly rooted in vintage styles, vintage narratives, and, arguably, vintage ideals.

From the start, it is obvious that this is a story about a community rather than one or two individuals. The show begins with characters wandering onto the stage: stout Scottish-Italian barbers, priests with cigarettes hanging off their lips, “Teddy Boys” with greasily coiffed hair and bright suits, grumbling and joking with each other as people do in a town where everyone knows everyone. The opening and closing of the performance, rather than bookending the events of the story, give the impression that it was just one series of events in the history of a town which will live on after the curtain falls. Tying it all together is the strength of the design, which combines the aesthetics of small town Scotland with 1950s Americana. The stage is set, all that remains is to create a world worthy of it.

hoto Credit: Eoin Carey

The events of the story centre around musician Dessie (Marc McMillan) and his short-lived Skiffle band The Crescents, consisting of best mate and sleazy flirt Gil (Dylan Wood), rival-turned-collaborator Joey (Scott Fletcher), and gormless but threatening manager Frankie (Simon Donaldson). And the women of this village, you ask? Well, that’s where it becomes clear that this world is a bit one-sided. Dessie’s mother is killed off-stage by cancer to give him a reason to be sad. The other female characters, Maureen, Paula and Donna (Dani Haron, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, and Julia Murray), are shuffled from man to man, never expressing any desire or interests of their own except regarding who they want to date.

This is a world in which women are not so much characters as inconveniences, particularly to Dessie who is one of the most unlikable protagonists I have encountered. The first act ends with him declaring, after facing the slightest bit of adversity, that he “cannae cope with you and the baby, sorry doll” to his seven-months pregnant girlfriend, and leaving immediately for London. The second act is spent seeing him drag his feet to make amends and watching more underdeveloped characters die without even a slither of emotional pay-off. Byrne is determined to create a sense of world-building with retro inspiration, but this is 2022. Why should we care about a world constructed entirely around the interests of men?

Photo Credit: Eoin Carey

As unlikable or as underdeveloped as these characters are, that is not to speak ill of the performances of the cast. Maureen as a character is obsessively clingy and outwardly hostile to other women, but Haron’s performance is energised with great timing for reaction and wit. Watching Gil flirt to the obvious disgust of the women around him is toe-curling, but Wood demonstrates his range for both comedic and tragic acting. But more than anything else they, and indeed the whole cast, prove how talented they are as musicians. They switch from vocals to keyboards to cellos to bass guitars to saxophones with ease to perform 50s/60s style rock and roll classics like “A Teenager in Love” and “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'”.

But despite how well the songs are performed, they fail to justify themselves. They may all be from roughly the same genre, and they may all be performed by the same band/cast, but as numbers in a musical they lack the personality needed to make it uniquely cohesive. Underwood Lane is in a dilemma where its songs are not original and therefore are not an attraction on their own, but the story isn’t nearly strong or original enough to act as a worthy vehicle to tie all of the songs together. The narratives of rival love interests and the dirty dealings of the music industry offer nothing audiences have not seen many times before, and the pace is bordering on dull. What makes a Jukebox musical worth seeing over, say, a tribute act is a story that brings the best out of the music and creates scenarios that heighten the emotions of each song. Here, the numbers act more like interludes than anything else.

It would be easy to say that Underwood Lane is a classic case of style over substance, but there is more to it than that. The real problem is that this aesthetic is married to this lack of substance; these visuals fit the tired storytelling that they dress. That is not to say that we cannot have a vintage-inspired theatre with a compelling story or well-rounded characters (especially female ones), far from it. But it is to say that this is a performance that did not make mistakes. It delivered exactly what it intended, and it is all the worse for it. Two stars.

Underwood Lane will run at Tron Theatre 30 July


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