Theatre review: The Slab Boys, Glasgow

2015 is the 70th anniversary year of the Citizens’ Theatre Company; and it opened in glittering style, on Saturday night, with the premiere performance of the new Citizens’ production of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys. With a vintage rock’n’roll band playing in the foyer, both the playwright and the First Minister in attendance, and the entire theatre staff dressed up in superb Fifties style, the Citizens’ seemed set for a brilliant celebration of Byrne’s great comedy, first seen at the Traverse in 1978, but set two decades before that, in the Slab Room of Stobo’s carpet factory, Paisley, in the winter of 1957.

Jamie Quinn as Spanky in rehearsals for The Slab Boys. Picture: Tim Morozzo
Jamie Quinn as Spanky in rehearsals for The Slab Boys. Picture: Tim Morozzo
Jamie Quinn as Spanky in rehearsals for The Slab Boys. Picture: Tim Morozzo

The Slab Boys - Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

* * * *

Yet for all its simple, classic structure and workplace setting – it covers a single day, and takes place entirely in the Slab Room, meticulously realised here in John Byrne’s own magnificent set – The Slab Boys is a glitteringly complex piece of drama, full not only of hidden darknesses, and searing insights into the casual bigotry of postwar Scottish life, but of a language – a multi-layered, hyper-real version of west of Scotland vernacular – that itself represents the human capacity for humour, irony, and self-reinvention that is the play’s theme. It therefore demands to be played like Shakespeare, every word given its full meaning and rhythm, each speech offered to the audience like a tiny aria.

And the truth about David Hayman’s new staging, 37 years on, is that like every other I have seen, it offers a tantalising 
mix of actors who understand this basic demand of Byrne’s great text, and actors who think they are dealing in some kind of naturalism. This time round, the glittering stars are Jamie Quinn as Slab Boy Spanky, Scott Fletcher as the much-bullied Hector, and a fabulously theatrical Kathryn Howden as the tea-lady Sadie; elsewhere – even in Sammy Hayman’s pleasingly dangerous Phil McCann – the acting is often more introverted, the comic rhythm less secure.

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In the end, this production gets away with it; the cast begin to overcome their first-half nerves, the pacing and rhythm grow more confident, the laughs come thick and fast. Frankly, though, it would be good, after nearly 40 years, to see at least one revival of The Slab Boys that just gets this great play right first time, without excuse or apology. By the time it reaches Edinburgh next month, this may be the greatest Slab Boys ever seen; but at the moment, despite its occasional brilliance, it misses that mark in ways that seem unnecessary, and therefore all the more frustrating.

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 7 March; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-14 March