DESTINY was the theme which intrigued, troubled and tormented the Greeks, underwriting their comedy as much as their tragedy, but it appears to be as much a force in modern Paisley as in ancient Thebes. It may take different forms today, particularly for the serf class in their exclusion from power, in the alienation they endure, in the work they are compelled to undertake, in the frustration of their aspirations, in the styles of life imposed on them, in the small decisions they have the liberty to make and in the major decisions others make for them, but it is an ineluctable force. Seeing The Slab Boys again after many years, it seemed to me that fate is a real presence in John Byrne’s drama. Since it is senseless to talk of justice or injustice in this dimension of life, he focuses on those to whom fate has been unkind and gives them a voice.
The play is artfully tailored, with the mechanism and timing of farce interspersed with moments of pathos and insight into the everyday humiliations of life on the margins. Genetic inheritance combines with social deprivation to leave some people bereft. Phil, one of the two slab boys, has a perfectly rhythmed, reproachful speech addressed to the privileged Alan, where every sentence begins ‘what do you know about’, and where he rages against the experience of living in poverty with an unbalanced, suicidal mother, and having to deal at the same time with the condescension of petty power. For most people, especially for those with the status of helot-employees, the irksome irritations of life, as Dostoevsky demonstrated in his satirical portraits of provincial Russia, are not the big, overarching injustices of society or politics, but the petty power exercised unfeelingly by those just one step up the social ladder. This is the stratum of society, with the workers at the lower end and the middle-boss just above them, that Byrne observes. The Slab Boys is masterly in its combination of wry observation, critical creativity and prickly comedy
This is a timely and welcome revival, partly because the play itself is such a wonderful work and too many good Scottish dramas endure their afterlife only in that circle of hell which is a library shelf, and partly because it brings to life conditions which are again becoming commonplace. David Hayman, who directed the first production at the Traverse in 1978, is again director, as well as playing Mr Curry, although his performance in that part is strangely subdued. The eye-catching design is by Byrne, and shows a paint-spattered workshop of Stobo & Co, carpet manufacturers in Paisley, in 1957. The action unfolds over the course of one day, all that is required, as the Greeks knew, to set the course of a life.
There is nothing provincial about The Slab Boys, any more than there was about Ibsen. The Norwegian looked scornfully at bourgeois life in Norway, while Byrne focuses on working class life in Scotland. He is not a realist, and not just because his dialogue has rhythms and imaginative power that overheard speech can never attain. He never mistakes surface virtues and vices for realism, much less reality. He peels away illusions, takes the humdrum, day-to-day routines of ordinary folk and transforms them into material for the examination of hope, disappointment, self-delusion and all the cheating violence and cruelty that men and women perpetrate on each other.
The play depicts the resistance of the underdogs and the culture they develop to survive and maintain self-respect. That may be an unduly ponderous way of saying that the writing is endowed with wicked humour and a rich, earthy, imaginative and surreal blend of fantasy and world-weariness. The Laurel and Hardy wise-cracking of Phil and Spanky, the slab boys, is smart, disrespectful and subversive. The complaint made by Mr Curry, the manager positioned above the slab boys but beneath the factory owner, that everything in the Slab Room is going to wrack and ruin, and that ‘the colour cabinet outside’s half empty’, draws from Spanky the cheeky reply that, ‘it was half full this morning’. There is a snap, crackle, pop to the exchanges, with the lower orders winning out at this level but the hapless Curry enduring it, secure in the knowledge that while he is the butt of repartee, he is on the right side of the class divide. There are many instances of devilish, seemingly nonchalant cleverness:
Curry: Have we got any tracing paper here?
Spanky: Tracing paper?
Curry: Tracing paper
Spanky: For tracing?
Curry: Just so.
Curry: What happened to the roll Mr Barton left?
Spanky: There’s no trace of it.
If the cast in this new production does not always manage to endow the exchanges with the nasty edge that is present in much of the dialogue, there is no escaping the bitterness that underlies their words and gives them the appearance of cynicism. This is more than anarchic irreverence. It is a wit drawn from wells of resentment.
Humour is a bulwark against an indifferent or oppressive hierarchy which denies the worth of the people living on the margins. For all the laughter it arouses, drollery of this sort can be as painful as scraping a fingernail on a tenement wall. And of course, it needs a victim, who is not necessarily the man in the office along the corridor. The Slab Boys is not a work of satire where, as we have been told in recent weeks, offensiveness is part of the aim. Brittle humour of the sort fired out by the boys in the paint room is often turned on the weaker party, any weaker party, not necessarily the authority figure.
It is easy for an ageing critic to allow his eyes to mist over at recollections of what Alexander Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Gerard Kelly or Billy McColl made of these parts in earlier decades, but there is an imprecise lack of command, conviction, or even strength in the production as a whole. There is not enough swagger when swagger is called for, the comic lines are too often delivered in a way which fails to elicit a response from the spectators and the bullying is downplayed. Scott Fletcher is better as Hector, the victim of the baiting from the slab boys, than the actors playing them are as the callous perpetrators of what nowadays would earn them a reprimand as bully-boys.
Jamie Quinn is at home with the part of Spanky Farrell (no relation) but Sammy Hayman loses his struggle with the central part of Phil. He seems more at ease in the more sombre second act, as Phil comes to face the prospect, denied later in the trilogy, that for all his aspirations and faltering belief in his own talents, he faces a life of pointless grind and futility. The production as a whole grows in confidence in the second part when the atmosphere is darker. The best performances come from actors playing the part of those who accept their lot and get on with the job, most notably the splendid Kathryn Howden as the tea-lady, motherly towards the put-upon Hector, flirtatious with the newly arrived Alan (Kieran Downie) and then quite magnificent in her open-hearted, woman-to-woman chat about the inadequacies of men with young Lucille (Keira Lucchesi). She switches mood gracefully as she goes, and every word she speaks can be heard, which is a skill Lucchesi has yet to acquire. James Allenby-Kirk catches perfectly the wounded pride of Plooky Jack, as he responds with hurt indignation to the humiliating jibes of the slab boys, before getting his own back, however inadequately.
There is no attempt, and no need, to update the work, although the central duo could have come from one of many deprived post codes in central Scotland today. The audience for this sell-out production enters to the strains of Doris Day belting out ‘My Secret Love’, while the poster on the back wall of the workshop is of James Dean, whose role as rebel without a cause is discussed in the play. The slab boys have the hair cut and the dress of the teddy boys, the first teenage rebels. They had plenty of causes to rebel against, but they have no sense of any wider vision of society. Of few works of theatre could it be more accurately said that the political is personal. Mr Barton, the owner of the plant, never makes an appearance, but his presence, his power and the deference he demands and receives from expendable employees at every level permeate their lives and shape their experience. Only Phil has any hope, any sense that life could be richer, that upward mobility from the workshop to a desk job is not enough in itself. For the others, class is a subjugating force. The call to see a superior ‘in my office’ is a summons to be feared. The Red Clydesiders might never have existed.
So what motivates them? There is a vein of violence, and not just verbal, in the world Byrne depicts. Of course Phil and Spanky turn their bile on Curry, on Plooky Jack, on the absent Mr Barton and on the university-educated toff, Alan (played with assurance by Kieran Downie), but the real victim is one of their own kind, poor wee Hector. Sadie the tea-lady takes him under her wing, but she only comes in and out of the Slab Room. Phil and Spanky are there all the time, and pity or fellow-feeling are not part of their armoury. They mock, demean, insult Hector. When he, like them, expresses lustful feelings for Lucille, even if his shy intentions go no further than hoping to invite her to the staff dance, they flatter and encourage him even although they know he will be rebuffed. Under the pretence of assisting him, they strip him of his pride as well as of the clothes they deem unsuitable. These are hidden away, and he is left bloodied, cold and undressed. Having decked him out in alternative, ludicrous attire, they pack him off to seek out the alluring Lucille. Malvolio’s fate was no more demeaning.
It is the toff who gets the girl, although Hector has his own triumph by winning his much desired promotion to a desk job inside the plant. The prospects for Spanky are bleak, but they are apparently equally so for Phil, who is sacked from his work and refused by the Art School, but as he walks away, shoulders hunched and head down, something in his spirit changes. He turns a cartwheel and shouts out the defiant yell that ‘Giotto was a slab boy’. Fate, at least for some, can be resisted. Phil will return later in the trilogy more successful and fulfilled. It is to be hoped that there are plans to revive the other two parts.
The Slab Boys
The Citizens, The King’s Edinburgh,