An early contender for 2015’s hottest ticket, perhaps? It’s certainly been plenty hyped up – interviews in every broadsheet, and some slickly shot promos with the show’s creators. As though the shoes weren’t already big enough to fill, The Slab Boys is synonymous with the ‘golden age’ of Scottish theatre of the late 1970s and early 80s, and the trilogy is still deemed by many (including myself whole-heartedly) to be one of Scotland’s greatest theatrical triumphs. So then, it is absolutely appropriate that David Hayman, director of the world premiere at the Traverse in 1978, has returned to team up once again with writer and designer John Byrne for this new production at the Citz.
Set in a ‘slab room’ (a paint-grinding room, for the uninitiated) of a carpet factory in Paisley in 1957, the slab boys truly are the lowest rung on the ladder. At the heart of the play are Phil McCann and Spanky Farrell, two raucous teenage teddy boys who have somehow found their way in the monotonous world of full-time employment. Theirs is the double act to end all double acts – they finish each other’s gags, cover for each other when the militant boss Willie Currie is on the prowl, and pilfer each other cakes from the unwitting tea-lady Sadie’s trolly. Their shared sense of humour is mocking at its best, and downright sadist at its worst – and it’s the weedy slab boy Hector McKenzie who seems to bear the brunt.
As a play, it is theatrical dynamite. Yes, it is funny – achingly, guiltily funny in places – but it is also superbly dark. Phil McCann is a glorious, gorgeous bastard whose aptitude for razor-sharp cruelty seems boundless, particularly when cracking deflecting jokes about the tragic mental ill-health of his mother. Sammy Hayman’s portrayal just can’t pull it off – he is ultimately a bit flat, not enough charm or swagger to be a rebel with sex appeal, and not enough dark intensity to be a dangerous presence. As Willie Currie, Hayman Sr. finds an authoritative stride, Jamie Quinn has a little more bite as Spanky, and Kathryn Howden lights up the stage with her maternal, measured Sadie.
John Byrne’s set is predictably fantastic, painted by his own exceptional hand, although the decision to have a corridor running round the front of the set leads to some overly long entrances and exits, dropping the pace considerably. Occasionally, this production feels like an adult panto, with long pregnant pauses left for laughter, and the strong central comedic double act is too often pushed towards slapstick. Not one single word of Byrne’s script is superfluous, yet sometimes scenes feel as though they are slogging through the murkier dark bits, seeking the next laugh. The solid script still shines through in an otherwise sturdy production, but this show suffers from a fatal miscasting.