Tennis Elbow review – rambunctious ride through an awful artist’s life

In 1977, John Byrne staged his debut play, Writer’s Cramp, a riotous pastiche on the life of an author and painter which filled the rafters at its Edinburgh fringe venue. The story followed Francis Seneca McDade, born in Paisley, like Byrne, although of far more dubious talent. More than four decades after that success – and 13 years since Byrne wrote his last play – comes his new version of that drama with a gendered twist.

The protagonist now is Francis’s estranged wife, Pamela Crichton Capers, who hustled to get commissions in her lifetime but who, posthumously, is described in hagiographic terms as a “woman of our time and all time”. That hyperbole is undercut as we are served examples of her purple prose and pulpy romances: “Wanda felt every sinew of her lithe body tighten …”

Her life is recapped in flashbacks, through letters, telegrams, newspaper reports and her own writing. Like Francis, she progresses from boarding school to Oxford, and from stretcher bearer during the second world war to a stint in Holloway prison after she is interned for being the illegitimate child of a German, before her rise and fall as a writer-painter begins in earnest.

Directed by Elizabeth Newman for Pitlochry Festival theatre and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, in collaboration with Naked Productions, there are some of the same comic skits, undimmed in their mischief and wit. Pamela’s university patter is a delightful caricature of horsey Oxford slang: “Park your bottie, let’s have some cheese and crackers, old sport,” says “Pammers” as she is known to her set. The prison scene too, featuring her mother’s justifications for having a night of fun with a German who she believed was from Belfast, still raises laughs: “He told me his name was Gilhooley.”

While these scenes are richly drawn, the play is constructed more as a series of set-pieces or connected sketches, and feels less satisfying as a joined-up narrative, with Pamela’s story somewhat petering out by the end, and leaving gaps in her life.

The narrative is framed as a homage to her and features a cast of colourful auxiliary characters who turn up in flashbacks. This multi-voiced aspect of the play gives it its riotous energy but it also renders it slightly confusing as an audio production. The cast, some of whom double up in other roles, includes Maureen Beattie as the narrator, Kirsty Stuart as Pamela, Brian Ferguson as Francis and Samuel West as the TV announcer. Packed with plot and changes of fortune, the dialogue is fast-paced and literary, which is variously delightful and difficult to follow.

Tennis Elbow, as a whole, seems to be in conversation with Writer’s Cramp, and might be enjoyed more knowingly by those who have seen that play, although it is a rambunctious spoof in its own right and one which introduces Byrne’s misunderstood “genius” and antihero to a new generation.

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