In 1977 the hottest ticket at the Edinburgh Festival was comedy drama Writer’s Cramp by new Scottish writer John Byrne and the three-hander went on to be a hit in London.
It was the riotous tale of Frances Seneca McDade, who is being remembered by the Nitshill Writing Circle, and they seem oblivious that despite his public school swagger their mentor ended up being an utter mediocrity in all his many artistic endeavours.
Now Bryne has returned to Paisley for a new radio play, Tennis Elbow, as the writing group gather once again to remember the life of McDade’s estranged wife Pamela played by Kirsty Stuart.
“Tennis Elbow is the life story of a writer and artist as she makes her way through life and all of the characters that she meets on the way, the struggles that she has,” says Kirsty. “It kind of covers everything really from friendship to marriage to lovers. In classic John style it ticks all your boxes as she goes through life meeting all of these different people.
“I think it’s lovely that for people who know Writer’s Cramp there will be characters that they might recognise, or little glimpses of stories that they recognise, but it’s a play in its own right.”
Tennis Elbow is being produced as part of the Soundstage project created by Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre that uses radio plays to help fill the artistic void created by the pandemic.
“We didn’t really get any time to rehearse going into this because of the nature of the pandemic. We’ve been sent through the play, but normally when you are approaching a new work there is three or four weeks of rehearsal, you go sit in a room where you will all read through and chat. The entire cast becomes a sounding board for your ideas, and everyone else’s ideas, together you create these characters in this place.
“I felt quite alone initially reading the play, what if I’m wrong and my perception of Pamela and the story is wrong.”
When you talk to actors a recurring theme is they usually do jobs because of the text, which was certainly a factor for Stuart, who leads a cast that includes Maureen Beatty who narrates Tennis Elbow. They’re joined by Sam West, fresh from his turn as Siegfried Farnon in surprise hit TV show, All Creatures Great and Small.
While Byrne’s funny and subtle text might be challenging, the cast are using it as an additional safety net.
“John’s text is so wonderfully dense, there’s so many plays on words, and it’s not as simple as just reading a play naturalistically. There might be little sections that you go ‘right, hang on, I’m going to have to go back and read that again’ because there’s so much alliteration, or he plays with words in such a wonderful way.”
Getting the 81 year old Byrne to revisit Nitshill was a real coup for Soundstage. Performing the words of a Caledonian great brought its own pressure for the cast, directed by Pitlochry’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman, who were all working outside the usual comfort zone a face to face ensemble can create in the rehearsal space.
“It’s John Byrne, I want to do this justice, and I had phoned Elizbeth the night before we were due to start recording in all our little home booths, and said I’m having a panic and a wobble. Her advice to me was that we just need to allow John’s text to do the work for us because of the way he writes you just have to submit to his style and his poetry.”
The delusional McDade is one of the great theatrical anti-heroes but audiences recognised his flawed humanity and desperation under all the bombast. Now the older Byrne has crafted a different kind of lead character for Tennis Elbow that strikes a chord with Stuart.
“He’s written an incredibly funny, incredibly warm, bright, savvy, feisty woman who is trying to get a break, she’s trying to make it work,” notes Stuart. “There’s something really joyfully recognisable as somebody who spent the last 15 years of my life trying to juggle that kind of life.
“You’re freelancing, you don’t know when your next job is coming, so there’s something really enjoyable about seeing Pam in this kind of world, and through John’s eyes the life of the artist. It’s really touching as she’s got real heart, there’s some lovely scenes in it.”
Like every actor on the planet Stuart has missed the intimacy and buzz of being on stage in front of an audience, but has made the most of learning to perform in a very different way for this production.
“I’m sitting in my little wardrobe that’s been mocked up as a sound studio crushed in this space with my computer open so I can see everybody’s faces on zoom. These people I have never met before are popping up, and you’re having a lovely half an hour to an hour with that person then they say goodbye, and somebody else pops up.
“As a race we’ve been on zoom for over a year now, we’ve got used to it to a certain extent. But there’s no getting away from the fact that you communicate better when you’re in a room with someone. Body language, proximity, and being able to move around the space, of course, that’s going to tell a story in a much more visceral, obvious way.”
Despite the limitations caused by the need to make work safely Stuart is confident that anyone tuning in will still appreciate that the cast have done their very best to make Byrne’s world come alive across the airwaves.
“That’s the skill of really great radio plays that you hear, you absolutely see it in the way the actors manage to tell the story just through their voice. It’s like watching a movie in your head because they’re living it so fully.
“Yes, of course, being on stage and doing it in person would be ideal because that’s what we’d love to do. It doesn’t feel like it’s throw away or frivolous, let’s just do this to fill the time. We’ve got a great script and we’re really working to do it justice. It’s fed the soul.”