Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 24 May
Next time you’re trapped behind an oldie trying to use a cash point, quietly contemplating the benefits of euthanasia, you might want to reflect on Phil and Spanky, and buy yourself some patience. John Byrne first introduced us to this roguish pair as young wannabes at a Paisley fabric factory at the dawn of the 60s in The Slab Boys. This fourth instalment of a cycle that has stretched more than three decades sees them, having each married and remarried their youthful crush Lucille through alternate decades, living out their old age with typically charming bad grace.
Phil (Paul Morrow) is living at an ancient Highland pile, producing no longer fashionable paintings while his unfaithful Britart wife (Meg Fraser) has become the toast of the cognoscenti. He’s interrupted, one summer’s day, by a BBC arts journalist (Cara Kelly), intent upon writing his artistic obituary, his wife’s latest media hack lover (Nicholas Karimi) and finally, Spanky (Gerry Mulgrew) and Lucille (Gerda Stevenson) on the way to a trendy resort built precisely for the kind of former rock star Spanky is. The past is raked over, tensions rise and a painful, funny farce on contemporary life in Scotland ensues.
Paddy Cunneen’s production keeps the tone light, allowing the painful processes of memory and the confrontation between age and existential oblivion to emerge from Byrne’s witty dialogue and the actors’ nicely timed physical comedy. This is a piece that emphasises the idea that the past is capable of changing each time you examine it, and can still bring revelations, some of them life changing. Byrne’s comedy, which includes the odd memorable rant about the contemporary arts scene, succeeds because it allows no speaker to take the moral high ground; each character presents a strong case for themselves, then is quickly undermined by their own behaviour.
Michael Taylor’s set is a wonder in itself, its leafy, slightly unkempt lawn strewn with the toys of children we never meet including the gorgeously observed detail of a football wedged in a tree. There are also some strong performances, with Paul Morrow’s acutely presented old curmudgeon a splendid turn at apparently late notice. Mulgrew, too, allows no comic opportunity to pass him by, while Kelly’s Kirsty Wark soundalike hackette is a constant treat.