It is the wit of John Byrne's script which lingers in the memory. But there's so much more to this play, and the other two – 'Cuttin' a rug' and 'Still life' – which make up 'The slab boys trilogy'. Nostalgic but unsentimental, a grim reality lurked behind the boys’ bravado. Attitude might alleviate the pain of life, but can never remove it.
Traverse Theatre Club, 6 April 1978. Directed by David Hayman. Designer: Grant Hicks.
Phil – Billy McColl
Spanky – Jim Byars
Hector – Pat Doyle
Jack Hogg – Robbie Coltrane
Lucille – Elaine Collins
Alan – Freddie Boardley
Willie Curry – Carey Wilson
Sadie – Ida Schuster
'You must’ve seen them musicals. Fred Astaire dancing with Roy Rogers. They both had their trousers buttoned up the back ...'
It is a Friday in 1957. Phil, Spanky and Hector are young lads working in a Paisley carpet factory as 'slab boys'. They should be grinding up powder for the paint slabs, but they prefer to do as little work as they can and smoke as much as possible.
Young, sharp and bored, they discuss their aspirations. Phil dreams of a place at Glasgow Art School, while Spanky wants to go to America and become the next Elvis. Hector dreams of taking Lucille from the mailroom to the staff dance – which is also on Spanky's agenda. Emotions are high.
'Yeh, Plooky Chops ... them boils of yours is highly smittal.'
Written in Byrne's own Paisley tongue, this – and the play’s evident autobiographical elements – gave it a real truth which resonated with audiences.
Like 'The Cheviot' before, and 'The steamie' after, 'The slab boys' owed something to the enduring popularity of broad music hall humour in Scotland.
The colourful, yet believable, characters have provided wonderful roles for the likes of Billy McColl, Elaine Collins, Ida Schuster, Gerard Kelly, David Hayman, Robbie Coltrane and Andy Gray. They played the comedy to the hilt and audiences loved it.
Though of course one of the things about great comedy is that the sadness hits us harder.
'You'll learn, flower ... you’re young yet. You can afford to sift through the dross ... till you come to the real rubbish at the bottom.'
'Before he became a playwright, John Byrne showed signs of becoming a theatrical designer of note. His draughtsmanship is exact and frequently witty and the Theatre Museum ... would be well advised to acquire some of his original designs. His playwriting style is not dissimilar to his drawing, except that he is consistently much funnier in words: his lines are clear, sharp and rich in character.
'... Over the next few weeks the whole trilogy will be performed in rotation at the Royal Court, with a few all-day sessions. On the evidence of "The Slab Boys", each play should stand on its own. But, having seen "The Slab Boys", I suspect audiences will want to follow the adventures of Phil, Spanky, Hector and Lucille right through to the end. It will be interesting just to see how Billy McColl deepens his already fine characterization of Phil, and how the rest of David Hayman’s fine company develops.
'Mr Byrne's people have the complexities of real life in their cartoon clarity. The loud boys reveal tenderness and quiet Heck reveals unexpectedly firm vindictiveness ... The play tumbles forward in comic language and slapstick action, and though the language is Glaswegian it is never as impenetrable as legend holds.’
– Ned Chaillet, 'The Times', 19 November 1982.
'John Byrne has always claimed that his long running story of Phil and Spanky, slab room apprentices at A F Stobo's Paisley carpet factory, their little bespectacled sidekick Hector, and the lovely Lucille Bentley ('every slab boy’s dream') would eventually amount to a big, old-fashioned three-act drama, but I couldn't help wondering whether seven solid hours of Byrne's quick-fire, aggressive Paisley wit and frantic slapstick wouldn’t seem too much of a good thing.
'But by 12.30pm, when the exhausted company to the final bows at the end of Byrne’s latest play, "Still Life", there were a 100 hot, sweaty and delighted people in the audience who needed no convincing about the stature of Byrne’s work. There are plenty of rough edges and minor misjudgments both in the plays and in David Hayman’s productions, but basically, seen together and whole, "The Slab Boys" Trilogy is a theatrical triumph.
– Joyce McMillan, 'Sunday Standard', 18 July 1982.
© National Library of Scotland 2010