Revival of John Byrne's The Slab Boys marks the Citizens Theatre's 70th anniversary
John Byrne tells Gareth K Vile why his 1957 tale is as relevant now as it was in the height of punk
The revival of John Byrne’s 1978 masterpiece The Slab Boys is an appropriate choice for the Citizens’ 70th birthday. Eventually expanded into a trilogy – with a fourth play added in the 21st century – it has become one of Scotland’s most influential, popular and defining works. Capturing a day in the life of two young men, working in the slab room (or paint mixing facility) of a carpet factory, it’s a partially autobiographical and stirring tale of love, ambition, failure and social exclusion.
The Slab Boys remains a testament to Byrne’s ability to match vernacular language to poetic theatricality, a study in existential despair and a snapshot of a time now irrevocably lost due to the Americanisation of culture and globalisation. Byrne, who admits that he was a teddy boy in his teenage years, before adopting a beat poet look and attitude during his time at art school, took his own experiences as a slab boy in the 1950s and wrote a script. It connected to the kitchen-sink realism of that period’s theatre, added a dash of absurdist anxiety and incorporated a Glaswegian swagger that has a vaudevillian humour.
While the 1970s revelled in a rash of nostalgic art about the 1950s (Happy Days on TV, Grease at the cinema and Showaddywaddy on Top of the Pops), Byrne’s take is harsher, and uncompromising in its portrayal of the lack of opportunities available to the working class at the time. Sitting in on director David Hayman’s rehearsals, Byrne notices the small changes in language that reveal the social changes over the intervening years, but he also observes a common humanity that links 2015 to 1957. ‘It is still so very familiar,’ he says. ‘It’s just a different generation playing it: they are newly ripe.’
Being on hand to discuss his script, he recognises how accents have changed, and how these changes reflect broader shifts. ‘Because they are youngsters, they have no knowledge of how to pronounce Co-op!’ he laughs. ‘It’s Scotmid now; they called it the Co-op when people became better spoken. They had to be, because they were indecipherable to anyone outside Glasgow!’ Nevertheless, Byrne is unworried that this generation will be able to perform. ‘I reminded them that they are playing humans beings who haven't changed for a thousand years at least! And they'll look right for the period!’
The Slab Boys has retained its popularity because this common humanity – and the compassion of Byrne’s writing – prevents the story from becoming a historical curiosity. Unlike earlier attempts to capture Glaswegian working-class life (the earliest incarnations of the Citizens’ Theatre majored in gritty realism), the wide range of styles in the script (at times, it resembles a fast-moving farce, before concluding with a tragic atmosphere) means The Slab Boys continues to resonate.
Undoubtedly, this is partially due to Byrne’s canny recognition of the late 1950s as a crucial moment in popular culture. ‘The teddy boys began earlier, but were still going,’ he reflects. ‘You had to parade the clothes, after parading in front of the mirror!’ This first outbreak of teenage mass culture, which was regarded as the time as dangerous and socially divisive, was the beginning of a very British tradition.
‘Unlike France which has guardians of the culture, we were less mindful of British culture but encouraged rebellion. That encouraged factions to make their own culture, punk rock and all that, the bastion of the anti-establishment in Soho.’ Having lived through the dreamy rebellions of the 60s, and the Thatcherite reaction of the 80s, Byrne’s script pays homage to that moment when American fashion and music collided with Glaswegian gallusness.
Bringing in David Hayman to direct – and act – in this revival makes the link to the Citizens’ history more explicit. In the 1970s, Hayman was a regular in Giles Havergal’s casts during a period when the theatre became notorious for its iconoclastic takes on the classics. Dominic Hill’s current artistic direction of the Gorbals venue consciously evokes that era, through bringing back Hayman (he was King Lear in 2012) and approaching Shakespeare with his own dynamic interpretations.
With versions of No Mean City staged in the past, and a close relationship with the local community (reduced prices for Gorbals’ residents or the recent 50p ticket offer), this presentation of The Slab Boys links into the Citz’ affection for its home city. The resilience and humour so often cited as fundamental characteristics of Glasgow finds its expression in Phil and Spanky, the double act at the script’s heart. Byrne, whose plays have recently been revived across Scotland, remains excited by the potential of theatre, even if he worries at the dangers of scripts that rely on ‘cut and paste techniques’.
‘Too often, you go into the theatre and you leave exactly the same. “Entertained” perhaps during your time there, but you come out and nothing has happened. It’s like a soap. No subtext, no identity, no language. But you see a great play and your life is enhanced by it.’ The Slab Boys aims at exactly that life-enhancing energy.
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 12 Feb–Sat 7 Mar; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 10–Sat 14 Mar.