Thirty six years from its original debut, John Byrne’s classic play, loosely based on his own true-life experiences as a Slab Boy (a paint mixer in a factory) in Paisley, returns to the Citizens as part of the theatre’s 70th birthday.
Director David Hayman is of course no stranger to the play, having staged its first run in the Traverse all these years ago. He’s also a life-long friend of Byrne’s – and portrays the gaffer here,the officious, Enoch Powellesque Mr Willie Curry – in an absolute gem of a performance. The more apoplectic this authority figure gets, the funnier he is.
Set across one typical day in 1957, Byrne’s typically raucous backdrop looks authentic: festooned with shabby rock ‘n’ roll paraphernalia like James Dean posters, spindly demons with geetars and advertisments for “ra dancin'”. Even the Citz staff are decked out in their best rockabilly togs. Yet, for all of its spirited sense of time and place, it takes a while to hit its groove.
Phil McCann, the lead and the character most physically reminiscent of Byrne, is unevenly served by Sammy Hayman, first as a loveable rogue, then a downright sadistic thug. He and his best friend George ‘Spanky’ Farrell, a squeaky voiced chancer in red brothel creepers (Jamie Quinn,very fine) spend most of their days terrorising young innocent Hector McKenzie (Scott Fletcher,providing pathos and toe curling hilarity alike) for sport,with their pingpong of snarky patter. A haircut ends with the poor boy’s blood everywhere.
This is all very knockabout, but once the cartoonish double act and their victim reach the second half of their saga, a darker,edgier tone kicks in. The trio are exposed as a dysfunctional family, when newcomer Alan Downie (Kieran Baker) turns up-all cut-glass vowels and matinee idol looks. His education is anathema to McCann, who longs for a place in art school, but is hampered by poverty, and it emerges, a deeply troubled background with a drunk abusive father and a mentally ill mother “who thinks I’m Thomas Aquinas”.
All the young men are vying for a date at the staff dance with Lucille Bentley (Keira Lucchesi) the office pin-up named after Little Richard’s sexually frustrated howl, who is the epitome of glamour, until she opens her vulgar mouth.
Sadie (Kathryn Howden) meanwhile, the tea lady, is the matriarch, and when she appears with her little tea trolley full of cakes and tea,the laddish banter subsides. Sadie has the measure of them, these gallus kids with their chutzpah and faked attitude: her stoicism and humour is augmented by the scene where she shares a tender tete a tete with Lucille, telling her about her mastectomy and brush with breast cancer with a cheery shrug. Byrne’s women characters are survivors, and defiantly unsentimental.
And it’s this and the working class poetry that still endures. Striding out to an uncertain future,having squared up to Curry too often, McCann punches the air with a swift “Giotto was a Slab Boy”. Artists and writers have been united in poverty and creativity alike, awaiting patronage – whether the Medici or Creative Scotland. Plus ca change.