THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN
The Slab Boys Trilogy is a legend of Scottish theatre, but 25 years after the appearance of the first play, should the Traverse with its remit to present new writing, be reviving it? Words: Steve Cramer
n 6 April I978. a legend of Scottish theatre was
bom. John Byrne‘s The Slab Boys opened at the
old Traverse theatre on the Grassmarket. and acclaim from audiences and critics flowed in. It was an apparently straightforward story of two [9-year-old boys. Phil and Spanky. working in the dye-mixing room of a carpet factory in 1957. and something in the energy of its Paisley patois caught the humour and moods of the day. creating characters who would live for a quarter century in the minds of audiences of that first production.
The boys lust after Lucille (‘every slab boy's dream’). the office babe. bully wee Hector. envy Alan. the posh overpaid university boy on his way up. and mock Phil. the spotty lad who has been promoted to the design room. They also live in fear of the fierce disciplinarian gaffer. the war veteran Willy Curry. and pinch biscuits from the tea lady Sadie.
Such was the acclaim of the original that the sequel. Cutting a Rug. appeared just over a year later. with a few characters added. to similar plaudits. Set in the evening of the winter's day of the first play. it moves the characters on to the staff dance. where farcical humour even more cruel than that of The Slab Boys overtakes the amorous and often vaguely tragic characters. In the final part of the trilogy, Still Life. which appeared in May l982. we've shifted on ten. then 15 years. and the failings. personal tragedies and quiet desperation of the characters are explored. as aspirations are thwarted and dreams broken.
12 THE LIST 13—27 Nov 2003
A sense of quiet humour and elegiac reflection hangs over
Precisely why it captured the imaginations of its audiences at the time is hard to say. Perhaps it was the general nostalgia for the 50s. spread from the [S in a desperate. rather conservative. quest for lost innocence. encapsulated by such films as xl/ncru‘un (I'm/fit! and TV series like Happy Days. Maybe there was more local longing for the security of an industrialised Scotland. which was beginning to disappear as cheaper overseas competition attacked its markets. and would be finally vandalised almost out of existence by Margaret 'l‘hatcher. Perhaps the growing sense of national identity. culminating in the devolution referendum of this time. chimed with the distinctive west coast flavour of the accents and cultural proclivities displayed. Maybe the last gasps of the old Scottish masculinity echoed in the minds of the male audience members. as Phil and Spunky bully and abuse Hector and the males around them. and Itst openly after Lucille.
Whatever the reasons. there's no doubting the success of Byrne‘s play. But is this trilogy more of its time than we like to acknowledge? flow will the modern. post industrial. post devolution. more gender-aware Scotland respond to this revival'.’ Did the play work better with a generation that actually remembered the Stls'.’ I asked a succession of prominent figures around the trilogy. both past and present.
The Slab Boys then and now (opposite, top to bottom): the rehearsals for current production, Billy McColl in the 1978 production, John Byrne, circa 1985
‘THERE'S A HUGE CRUSHING INSECURITY IN THESE BOYS' SHOWMANSHIP. BUT THE WAY THEY BULLY IS A KIND OF DISPLACEMENT ACT IVITY'