Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre, Glasgow Four stars
WE'RE in the ration-book London of Dylan Thomas, Wyndham Lewis and Francis Bacon. It’s a curious place that swings from bohemian excess to battened-down austerity. Into this wartime world step Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, graduates of the Glasgow School of Art hell-bent on smashing their way into the establishment – and smashing themselves up in the process.
Slimmed down to an efficient two-hander since its 1992 Royal Court debut, John Byrne’s play is a true-life portrait of two largely forgotten artists who arrived at the GSA a generation before he did. Played by Andy Clark as the talented Colquhoun and Stephen Clyde as the chippy MacBryde, they are a fascinating bundle of contradictions. Irreverent outsiders who yearn for approval, they have an equal passion for creativity and drunken self-destruction. They can switch from cruelty to tenderness within a sentence.
It takes a while for Andy Arnold’s studio production to settle and the scatter-gun gags of Byrne’s script to start hitting their mark, but once they do, the two actors do a gripping job. They are an us-against-the-world unit, a private and professional double act, whose relationship is characterised by mutual support and occasional bouts of jealousy, driven by an infectious combination of ambition and ability.
They are rock’n’roll rebels ahead of their time, who are defeated less by their hedonism than by forces beyond their control. Colquhoun and MacBryde’s era was one of rapid cultural change. One minute they were being feted as the natural successors to Picasso, their angular expressionism seeming bold and modern; the next, they were being eclipsed by Jackson Pollock, whose free-form abstractions made them look as dated as the crooners who came before Elvis. It all makes for a raucous and touching study of two men out of time.