Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms, Tennis Elbow – the latest offering from Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Lyceum’s Sound Stage – is a flawed but very funny piece.
The first play from Scottish cultural colossus John Byrne in many years, it is billed as a sequel to his 1977 success Writer’s Cramp. This tells a similar story; while the original featured unsuccessful poet and painter Francis Seneca McDade, Tennis Elbow focuses on his sometime wife Pamela Crichton-Capers.
Part disguised autobiography, part mischievous satire, part complete flight of fancy, Tennis Elbow is both a sequel to Writer’s Cramp and a re-working. Possibly the best parallel is to say that this stands in relation to the original in the same way Mary Poppins Returns does to the first film.
While it rarely does much that is truly original, there is much to savour here. Following a flashback-driven path through school, university, prison and unsuccessful attempts at success in art and literature that will be familiar to many, there is enough of a new slant to satisfy.
A comic relish for language predominates, with ridiculously heightened slang and ludicrous alliteration. There are seemingly endless variations on tapping up cash and paranoia about mail tampering. Parodic versions of literary genres display a combination of frustration and tolerant affection, as do the satires on the pretensions of the art world.
Some of the references and jokes are tailored to those of a certain age and a certain geographical background, but are still accessible. The (unfortunately small) example of poetry in the synthetic, syncretic Scots formerly known as ‘Lallans’ reinforces one of Byrne’s favourite dialogue tricks; it matters little if you don’t understand everything, because you’re not really supposed to, more to glory in the effect.
Which does not mean that it all works. It may be counter-intuitive to suggest that such a wordy play would work better on stage than as an audio production, but that is the case here. The characters are never fully differentiated, which is surely intentional, as they are to a degree projections of Pamela’s imagination, but it is not always easy to follow and over 90 minutes the effect begins to grate.
There are too many set-ups crying out for proper resolutions that fail to appear, too much is repeated, and it all runs out of steam well before the end.
Nevertheless, Kirsty Stuart’s wonderfully energetic performance as Pam gives the production considerable drive, and Maureen Beattie, as the narrator and Mother Scholastica, Pam’s erstwhile teacher at Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, has real bite.
a sharpness and an intimacy
The rest of the cast – including Sam West, Brian Ferguson, Louise Jameson, Sally Reid and Jessica Hardwick – do suffer from the interchangeability of the roles, but all acquit themselves well.
Elizabeth Newman’s sensitive direction, coupled with Alastair McGregor’s sound design and Louis Blatherwick’s excellent recording, give both a sharpness and an intimacy to proceedings.
There is little doubt that a tightened-up version would be better, but the sheer pleasure in language displayed here already goes a very long way.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (including interval)
Royal Lyceum/ Pitlochry Festival Theatre online
Friday 30 April – Sunday 2 May; Friday 7/Saturday 8 May 2021.
Evenings Fri/Sat: 7.30 pm; Sun Matinee: 4.30 pm (Virtual bar opens 30mins before start time).
Information and tickets:
Lyceum: Book here.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre: Book Here