The good folk of the Nitshill Writing Circle have gathered together to eulogise the life of writer and painter Pamela Crichton Capers, but the conceit of John Byrne’s first play for 13 years is that their late mentor’s career is one of utter mediocrity at best.
This is a companion piece with a gender twist to Byrne’s seventies hit show Writer’s Cramp that explored the life of another mediocrity Frances Seneca McDade. Fans of that earlier work will relish his fleeting appearances in this radio play produced by Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh as part of their Sound Stage season.
Byrne traces Pam’s life story from her early days as a pretentious schoolgirl in a crummy religious boarding school where we are treated to one of her dreadful poems, and the veteran playwright pulls off the trick of a good writer writing badly.
Somehow Pam ends up in a minor Oxford college where Byrne’s undimmed penchant for wordplay and alliteration is given full vent in a world packed with posh buffoons nicknamed Dadders, Gweners, Dickers and a baffled Pammers herself. Pammers leaves college with no degree, but has that iron self-belief Oxbridge gives you, and has blighted much of our culture for decades.
Pam spends much of World War Two banged up in Holloway as an undesirable alien thanks to her absent German old man producing some wonderfully dreadful prose printed on the prison press she improbably hopes to flog for six guineas. The plight of the penniless artist is one of the running themes to the point Pam even robs a charity box in the name of art.
Kirsty Stuart cleverly makes her Pam less a figure of fun, but someone driven by urges she lacks the talent to satisfy as she gamely battles through a series of self-inflicted mishaps. Her marriage to McDade is miserable, but unlike the goodhearted Pam he’s revealed by Brian Ferguson as a pathetic little conman.
Pam finally realises she can’t write switching ‘pen to palate’ and Byrne has great fun mocking modern art as Pam’s piece de resistance is a painting inside a kettle, which she hopes no-one has boiled.
Tennis Elbow does lose its way a little as Pam’s later life is truncated and for some reason her son Polly – don’t ask – barely gets a mention.
Maureen Beattie keeps things moving wonderfully as the pompous, oblivious chair of the writers group having great fun with Byrne’s still wonderful use of language. Sally Reid as Pammers’ old mate Double Davis and Jessica Hardwick’s Brazil gleefully nick every scene they are in.
Elizabeth Newman’s direction needs to be brisk as a lot of ground is covered by actors performing from cramped spaces in their homes, aided by Alistair McGregor’s subtle sound production.
Tennis Elbow is amusing rather laugh than out loud funny, but it is a perceptive examination of at what point do you stop following your dreams if you have no talent? Something the delusional Pam like so many middle class wannabes before her doesn’t understand until it’s far too late.
Tennis Elbow runs until 8th May.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 1st May 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★