Primrose pretensions

Apr 4 2016 | By More

ETA double bill pricks cultural pretensions

Edinburgh Theatre Arts are sending up Scottish cultural pretensions this week with a double bill of plays by contemporary playwrights from opposite ends of the spectrum.

At the pawkie end is John Byrne’s first play: Writer’s Cramp, which premiered to much critical acclaim at the Edinburgh fringe of 1977. At the poignant end is Ron Nicol’s Primrose Way, first staged by the McGavin Drama Club at the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, in 2013.

Writer's Cramp in rehearsal - David McCallum as FC McDade. Photo: ETA

Writer’s Cramp in rehearsal – David McCallum as FC McDade. Photo: ETA

Both plays deal with the lives of fictional artists. Byrne attacks the pretentious end of the Scottish literary establishment through his celebration of the life of Frank Seneca McDade, a man of letters and the arts, as told with readings and tableaux vivant by the Nitshill Sketch Club.

Nicol examines the theatrical life, though his creation of a bag lady, Primrose Way, who was once an aspiring professional actress. She is found in a doorway reminiscing about her enthusiastic youthful self and her ambitious mother – who was herself on the stage.

John Byrne was best known as an artist when he wrote Writer’s Cramp, although he was flush with theatrical inspiration having designed the Great Northern Welly Boot Show for Billy Connolly at the fringe of 1972, including Connolly’s famous banana boots, and the equally famous travelling set for 7:84’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil in 1974.

The first production of Writer’s Cramp – at the Calton Studios featuring Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett – provided Byrne with enough of a calling card to get his great Slab Boys recognised and staged by the Traverse the following year.

caustic edge

Bett returned to the show in January 2000 when he directed the Lyceum’s revival. Jimmy Chisholm played the wild-haired but ineffectual McDade, whose life slides downhill from boarding school and Oxford to the army, prison, a loveless marriage in a North London bedsit and, finally, a hovel back in Paisley.

Writer's Cramp in rehearsal - David Gibson. Photo: ETA

Writer’s Cramp in rehearsal – David Gibson. Photo: ETA

The translation from the confines of the Calton Studios to the proscenium arch of the Lyceum was not always as successful as it might be, largely because it tried too hard and was horribly over-designed. ETA have every opportunity to bring it back to a much more caustic edge in the confines of the St Ninian’s Hall.

Playing the Nitshill Sketch Club narrators for ETA will be Danny Farrimond and David Gibson, with John McLinden as the Reader, performing extracts from such McDade favourites as The Rising Sap and the wartime diaries known as The Khaki Titfer, together with the famous tableaux vivant which illustrate key moments in the life of McDade.

Commenting on ETA’s production, director Iain Kerr says: “The play has an extraordinary comic style and cuts fast to the heart of things. It touches on cultural pretensions in Scottish, and British, society. Francis Seneca McDade is a boy/man with aspirations sadly beyond his talents.”

ultimately moving

Ron Nicol is a playwright with 53 plays in print – at the last count. A favourite of amateur companies, his works stretch from pantomimes to full length plays, via plays suitable for performance in one-act festivals and plays for children.

Primrose Way in rehearsal: Kerry Trewern and Zoe Kelly. Photo: ETA

Primrose Way in rehearsal: Kerry Trewern and Zoe Kelly. Photo: ETA

In Primrose Way he gives three actresses of different ages the chance to shine, as the ancient and failed actress remembers her life, with the help of her younger self and her mother.

When her younger self is told off for swearing but her mother claims she is allowed to swear because she is an actress, it is enough to get the girl following in her mother’s footsteps onto the stage. It’s a life of unsuccessful auditions, grubby encounters on casting couches and lots of nearly, but not-quites.

The production will be directed by John McLinden with Edith Peers in the title role, Kerry Trewem as the mother and Zoe Kelly as the young Primrose.

Expressing his delight in being able to direct the work of one of Scotland’s most prolific and successful playwrights, McLinden said: “This lovely play taps into the reality of theatre life in a way that anyone involved will recognise. As Primrose Way’s  life unfolds before our eyes we witness a funny and ultimately moving piece of theatre.”


Primrose Way and Writer’s Cramp
St Ninian’s Hall, 40 Comely Bank, EH4 1AG
Monday 4 – Saturday 9 April 2016.
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee, Sat 9: 2.30pm.

Tickets £12 (£10) can be booked through the website or by phoning the Box Office on 07599928440.


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