THEATRE / Portrayals and betrayals: John Byrne's return to theatre after the television success of Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart has been greeted with outrage by friends of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Sarah Hemming reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Lunchtime at the Royal Court Theatre. Playwright John Byrne is supposed to be doing an interview but is nowhere to be seen. The publicity officer is tearing her hair out. 'Try the wardrobe,' suggests the artistic director; 'Or the main stage,' says a technician. Someone thinks they saw him slip out of the back door . . . Staff at the theatre seem to regard Byrne as they might a wayward puppy - with a combination of affection and exasperation. Finally he appears, a characteristic mixture of repentance, wit and charm. 'I'm terribly sorry,' he says 'I had the influenza.' That so confuses everyone they forget to tell him off.

Byrne returns to the theatre this month after a six year sojourn in television (making, amongst others, the series Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart). His new play also brings him back to his first love - he trained as an artist, and Colquhoun and MacBryde focuses on the lives of the two Scottish artists, both called Robert, who lived in 1940s Soho. Using a series of short, punchy scenes, Byrne's play tells their story from their early promise and success, through their drunkenness and downward spiral into early death. He explains that he has found the move back to stage refreshing.

'You can be theatrical - totally and utterly theatrical. You can suspend disbelief: you set a particular style at the top of the show and then carry that right through and the audience will go along with it. You can do a play in a minimalist, unrealistic way and people will accept that it's believable. Whereas the kind of films that I'm interested in are realistic - allegedly realistic anyway.'

Previous stage works such as The Slab Boys and Writer's Cramp revelled in exuberant theatricality and sharp banter. In Colquhoun and MacBryde, Byrne displays respect for the tragic outcome of the artists' lives and for their love for one another, but the script is also comic, bristling with doubles entendres and sordid details.

This time, however, Byrne has tempted the wrath of Soho with his style. Colquhoun and MacBryde, unlike his other works, deals overtly with the lives of real people, and the play has already caused considerable controversy among those who knew the two Roberts. Last week's Spectator carried an article in which close friends of Colquhoun and MacBryde railed against the script: 'crap' said Marsh Dunbar; 'rubbish' said Jeffrey Bernard. Byrne has been charged with distorting the characters of the artists, misrepresenting the nature of their ambition and suggesting that they were camp.

Byrne, who never met the pair, is unabashed by adverse response. 'I couldn't care less,' he says, phlegmatically. 'I wrote it to please myself. Everybody who knows someone has a different viewpoint of what the person is like, and every person has about 40 different personalities. And if you interviewed everybody's friends they would all have a different story to tell.

'Most of the scenes between Colquhoun and MacBryde in the play are very private. They were known as the two Roberts. In the play, in private Colquhoun calls MacBryde 'Bobby' and MacBryde calls Colquhoun 'Rab'. I'm the only one that knows that that's what they called each other privately. And there are many people who knew them who are going to say 'that's not what they were like at all'. It's not a drama-documentary. Perhaps it's based on real people - but it's 98 per cent made up. There are some salient points of their lives that I've stuck to, but I've certainly taken dramatic licence. I'm sensible to the fact that people will come along and may well be upset, put out, disappointed or hurt by what they see. But it's just a play. I'll just have to deal with the can of worms when the lid comes off]'

To a degree, Byrne enjoys mischief- making - he achieved his first London showing by submitting paintings to a gallery and suggesting they were 'nave' art by his untutored father. But his portrait of the Roberts, however much it may sketch around the facts, is, nevertheless, one inspired by affection. Byrne points out that even though he didn't know Colquhoun and MacBryde, they and their determination made a large impact on his own life.

'When I went to art school in Glasgow in 1958 they were legendary. They were the only two Scottish painters who had 'made it' in London . . . In those days the story was that they had camped outside the gallery until the gallery had taken them in. And I thought that was wonderful: they were so determined. They were folk heroes. They were famous to us, and since then, apart from those who knew them in Soho, they've been very neglected. There is now a reassessment of that whole neo-Romantic movement. But the whole thing was eclipsed by the arrival of American abstract expressionism. And we're great at neglecting our own talent.

'They were influenced by Picasso and Braque,' he continues. 'But they both had a talent that they were only just coming into - particularly Colquhoun. He didn't live long enough. He died in his 40s. Painters often get better and better. So they'd another 40 years before them. And I think it's tragic. But they both seemed hell-bent on self-destruction.'

Colquhoun and MacBryde could be aggressive when drunk, and at one point in the play MacBryde shakes hands with George Barker, crushing glass into his hand as he does so. (The heavy drinking, as it happens, has not been disputed by critics of the play.) And throughout the play Byrne outlines other famous characters in extremis - among them Barker and Dylan Thomas, neither of whom are shown in the most flattering of lights (Dylan Thomas, on first stage appearance, throws up into a bucket).

But for all its beery excesses, and Byrne's self-confessed fascination with post-war Soho bohemia, Colquhoun and MacBryde is not intended as a morality play. 'In hindsight, it's like a cautionary tale - drink looms very large in it. But I'm not judging them at all. I was interested in the times Colquhoun and MacBryde lived in and became famous in. It was in fact quite an innocent time. There was a kind of louche frisson in the air - but it wasn't despicable. Whenever anybody talks about that period 'innocent' is the word that crops up.'

He stresses too that Colquhoun and MacBryde is primarily a play about two characters rather than a period: 'It's a love story that spans 20 years. It's about two people who are bound together and happen to be artists . . . two people I'm very interested in. And I've a view of what their lives might have been like at certain times - and I've found a way to tell it in a way that I think might work for two hours on the stage.'

John Byrne: A Biography

Born Paisley, Scotland 1940. Attended Glasgow School of Art (1958-63) with a year at Edinburgh College of Art (1961-2).

Plays: Writer's Cramp (1977); The Slab Boys (1978); Normal Service (1980); Cara Coco (1981); The Slab Boys Trilogy (The Slab Boys, Cuttin' A Rug, Still Life, 1982); Candy Kisses (1986).

Television screenplays: Tutti Frutti (BBC, 1987); Byrne about Byrne (BBC, 1988); Your Cheatin' Heart (BBC, 1989).

Theatre design: The Great Northern Well Boot Show (1971); The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (7:84, 1972); Finn MacCool (Edinburgh Festival, 1973); Heaven and Hell (Traverse, 1979); The Cherry Orchard, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Leicester Haymarket, 1985); La Colombe (Buxton Opera, 1984); Le Nozze di Figaro (Scottish Opera, 1987).

(Photograph omitted)