JOHN Byrne’s The Slab Boys, for all its pathos, is a joyful creation.
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Vibrant and lively, its world is utterly recognisable yet utterly magical thanks to symphonic language that, like Rhapsody in Blue, captures its time and place with unforgettable verve.
It is the winter of 1957. Nineteen-year-old Phil McCann is one of a trio of ‘Slab Boys’ toiling away grinding colours, deep in the heart of a carpet factory. But he, Spanky, and the much-bullied Hector aspire to better themselves. He’s applied to Glasgow School of Art; the others long for promotion to a ‘desk’, where they’ll paint those colours onto templates for the woven rugs.
This production reunites Byrne – who designed the evocative set – and David Hayman, who both directs (as he did the 1978 debut) and appears as the boys’ officious boss Willie Curry. Hayman’s son Sammy plays Phil. He shouldn’t. On the plus side, like a dancer, he fully inhabits his ‘streak of piss’ body, moving effectively and gracefully. But when he opens his mouth, well, to borrow a phrase, he runs the gamut of human emotion from A to B.
The role requires an actor to convey Phil’s superficial devil may care attitude while also revealing his profound vulnerability. There’s a speech near the end where he sums up his life, which includes grinding poverty, a mentally ill, suicidal mother, and his own fear of going mad. It should move us, but it falls flat, like everything else Hayman says. He’s out of synch with Byrne’s cadences and renders everything beige.
This shifts the emotional weight of the play on to Spanky. Luckily Jamie Quinn is more than able to bear it. He, and marvellous Kathyrn Howden, as Sadie the Tea Lady, steal our hearts with their exuberance and skill. Chief clown and piss taker, Spanky is always ‘on’, but Quinn delivers his complexity. When he discovers he’s been passed over for promotion, we feel his disappointment keenly, in a way that we cannot for opaque, unreachable Phil.
All and all an enjoyable if off-balance production of a modern classic.