OneStopArts.com / Review / Writing: Journalism

The Slab Boys (***)

Tower Theatre Company’s revival of John Byrne’s classic The Slab Boys is partially successful, but inconsistencies in performance and direction hamper, just as the play is a bit of a relic. Nonetheless, a strong effort from from a company amateur in name but certainly not in result. At the Bridewell Theatre.

Tower Theatre Company’s revival of John Byrne’s classic The Slab Boys is partially successful, but inconsistencies in performance and direction hamper, just as the play is a bit of a relic. Nonetheless, a strong effort from from a company amateur in name but certainly not in result.

The Slab Boys is the first in John Byrne’s trilogy of the same name about said slab boys, who mix the paint for the design department of a carpet factory in Paisley. Modelled very closely on Byrne’s own experiences in a similar job, we follow the fortunes of Phil and ‘Spanky’, two Teddie Boys turned reluctant workers, both looking for ways to relieve the tedium of another day of grinding powder. Phil has dreams of entering art college, while ‘Spanky’ seems to take little seriously. With the impending ‘staffie’ (staff social) approaching, will either be able to convince Lucille to go with them, and how secure are their jobs?

I will freely admit that I had no idea that this was the first part of a trilogy, and a lot of my criticisms stem from that – it sits limpidly on its own, a sad tale of two men in a descending spiral of disaffection watching their lives crash around them, and doesn’t conclude so much as end – depressingly. I can imagine the second two parts might lift it somewhat, but as it stands, it’s just a bit grey – and it seems like a lot of time is spent arguing minor points rather than advancing any plot, which I imagine is due to similar reasons. Either way, presenting the piece on its own is a strange choice, and I can’t say it works fully – I was not a huge fan of the result.

However, objectively speaking, Tower Theatre Company have done an impressive job. The cast are generally strong, and the set is hugely impressive: set designer Philip Ley has created a gorgeous and accurate painter’s workshop, with dirty and grimy walls splattered with bright splashes of paint, creating a very truthful environment for so natural a piece. Costumes are less well conceived, too modern to place the piece directly in the 1950s but attempting to nonetheless – the result is mixed.

The script’s idiosyncracies, explicable as they are, have also clearly stumped director Colette Dockery; the action jumps from ribald slapstick to grim Scottish dourness too quickly, and the humour is really rather cruel to Dean Brown’s Hector: unattractive and uncool, the boys lambast and tease him (including nearly cutting off his ear), only to have him promoted above them and behave abysmally – there is truly nothing to like about the character, and the result is unpleasant. Similarly, Ross Henry Steele’s Phil and Jamie Biddle’s Spanky are such layabouts and so disaffected that you feel more sympathy with their put-upon boss than with either of them – there’s really no one to root for. My guess is that these characters are humbled throughout the trilogy, but after part one I couldn’t care less if one of them is fired or not. At least Scottish accents are generally strong – although the accent work seems to have hampered pace, as the timing was out for most comedy moments and the whole thing did drag along a bit.

I just find so little to like in the play – none of the characters deserve any sympathy, and yet mentally ill family members and surprising generosity are wheeled out in classic don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moments that fail to ring true – once we’ve got to know these characters, they really are intolerable. And in the end, they get their just desserts, with less rebellious characters getting the girl and the promotion – and it’s quite sad to see a play that completely removes the romance from rebelliousness. I suppose this all leads to something in the other two parts, but to stage part one on its own is really just quite disheartening.

However, that’s all in the script, although I must question Tower Theatre Company’s choice of production. Despite this, the result is well done and a testament to an exceptionally hard-working amateur company – with the effort given here, surely staging all three and finding some hope (and a conclusion) wouldn’t be too much to ask?

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