Theatre review: The Slab Boys
John Byrne's classic play gets a solid revival, as part of the Citz's 70th anniversary celebrations
Paint festoons the surfaces, murky smudges tint the studio glass: daubings of crisp be-suited devils line one side of the room, with a pencil drawn James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause taking pride of place on the other. This is the slab room, so called for it is home to the slab boys: the teddy-boy styled duo Phil and Spanky, decked out in 'brothel creepers' and wearing duck’s ass haircuts, and not forgetting Hector, the twitchy target of their many tricks and japes.
John Byrne’s The Slab Boys – set in the 1950s but first performed in 1978 – is one of the best-loved works in Scottish theatre, and this revival is part of the Citizens Theatre’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
Directed by David Hayman, the production is at its finest when amidst the throws of manic, farcical energy, with a particular sequence involving Scott Fletcher’s bewilderingly battered Hector paying off handsomely. The pairing of Jamie Quinn’s Spanky and Sammy Hayman’s Phil ensures that the patter – shot through with the celluloid dreams of Hollywood Americana – flows easily with jokes landing thick and fast. Indeed, the impish Quinn consistently proves to be a treat in counterpoint to the more tepid volatility of Hayman’s Phil.
But, away from the classic script, the production lags. The placement of a corridor right in front of the action begins innocuously enough as a slightly eccentric design choice, but over time drags at the dramaturgy of the piece, forcing the arc of Byrne’s play into a series of comings and goings.
The characteristic optimism of staring skywards from the slab – from artist ambitions, through jobs with desks, to a date for the upcoming staff dance – is poetically evoked, but oddly enough something denied both to Kathryn Howden’s Sadie and Keira Lucchesi’s Lucille who, as the female characters are reduced to a wife and a wench respectively.
Equally, the more poignant material of Phil’s ongoing public hardships – along with a proportion of the throwaway punchlines – comes off as somewhat muted or distanced. That the Slab Boys refuse to be broken by the weight of the world gives them their charm and it is the heights of their gallus imaginings that ultimately make them endearing. The final, triumphant cry that ‘Giotto used to be a Slab Boy!’ serves as a bitter-sweet triumph amidst the chaos of a Paisley carpet factory.