Writer: John Byrne
Director: David Hayman
Reviewer: R. G. Balgray
It must be difficult dealing with a classic of Scottish theatre: there are so few of them, in the first place, and this must play havoc with audience expectations. The temptation not to tamper must be huge. And with something like The Slab Boys, there’s the added factor – few plays are as much of their time as this: timelocked into its 50’s setting, featuring a lost skill in what is pretty much a dead industry, and a host of references seeming to cry out for a forest of footnotes.
So does this revival (of a play nearing its fortieth birthday) seem a mere museum exhibit, a historical curiosity? Well, no. Sitting in the audience at the King’s, initial signs were not auspicious: many of the audience seemed to have experienced the 1950s – not including some youngsters who sought to repeat them. But it was a full house, pretty much. And the mood music of these times past was played to the hilt in the staging – from a set dominated by the brooding features of James Dean to the background soundtrack, to the usherettes in their pony tails. The bounce this gives the production is echoed in the text itself – its emphasis on DAs and quiffs, dancing and the very real adolescent significance of just how those clothes should look seem both of then and now.
It seems possible both to recognise the historical detail (with its references to beatniks, the Capocci man, lucky bags, even plooks, for goodness sake!) while empathising with its characters. This is in no small part due to direction and cast. Sammy Hayman as Phil McCann, all sulky charisma and fallible naivety, makes for a powerful representative of blocked rebellion – chained by circumstance, knowing what is wrong, but not how to change it. The rest of the characters comprise a range of stereotypes. His accomplice Spanky, played by Jamie Quinn, is the pal who keeps his head screwed on, and accepts the necessary humiliations keeping his job lines up; there is the requisite graduate trainee, the glamorous secretary who takes the pragmatic decision about who her dance partner will be; and a range of victim figures – worms who turn at various points in the action. But it would do the play little credit to see it as merely as juggling stereotypes. It does have a lot to offer a present-day audience (and not just those prospective Higher English students studying it). Some of the references to Freemasonry, bigotry and the class war may seem dated; but there’s something dreadfully current – and vibrant – about the sense of adolescent rebellion hamstrung, then ground down by the demands of life, family and work. The way the play manages such a hard message within a background of humour, knockabout farce and a sense of innocence makes it more than relevant. For some in the audience, the performance undoubtedly reacquainted them with an old friend; but few in the audience will have felt short-changed by the more complex resonances it has to offer.
Reviewed on 10March, running until 14March 2015