Review: The Slab Boys – Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

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Published in The Times, Wednesday February 18 2015

Three Stars

There’s a sense of occasion to the opening night of this revival. A band plays rock and roll classics in the packed foyer, while the front of house staff, decked out in Fifties fashions, show excited audience members to their seats.

That the production, directed by David Hayman as part of the Citizens’ 70th anniversary celebrations, has been so oversubscribed, is testament to the enduring appeal of John Byrne’s 1978 comedy drama, the action of which takes place over one winter day in the paint-mixing room of a Paisley carpet factory in 1957. In a number of ways, Hayman’s production reminds us of how sharp, funny and multifaceted Byrne’s play (the first of a trilogy) is. Although the “technicolour hell hole” of the slab room (beautifully recreated here by Byrne himself) is small and cramped, the play’s canvas is surprisingly wide, touching on the burgeoning postwar generation gap, class hierarchies, social mobility and thwarted ambition, as well as the everyday teenage dramas of who is wearing the latest threads and who is taking who to the staff dance.

That’s a lot to cram into two-and a half hours and while Hayman’s production features some well-choreographed set pieces and a handful of good performances, there’s a sense that the company could do with turning up the theatrical fire power a couple of notches so justice might be done to Byrne’s tellingly observed script. There’s a notable imbalance in the central double act, for instance. With his springy, dancing strut and ingenuous expression, Jamie Quinn is a treat as “Spanky” Farrell, but Sammy Hayman (David’s son), as rebellious aspiring artist Phil McCann, hasn’t yet found a way to get across the vulnerability that lies beneath his character’s glib, angry façade.

Although from time to time the play’s rhythm falters, momentum is restored by the supporting performances, including James Allenby-Kirk as the officious Jack Hogg and Kathryn Howden as the seen-it-all tea lady Sadie. Their appearances spark life into a production that otherwise isn’t firing on all cylinders.  

Box office: 0141 429 0022, to Mar 7; transferring to King’s, Edinburgh, Mar 10-14

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