First published in The Times, Wednesday February 15 2017
The middle instalment of a trilogy can often feel inessential: the slightly sagging bridge between a punchy opening and satisfactory denouement. This revival of the second part of John Byrne’s Slab Boys trilogy reaffirms the play as every bit as funny and poignant as episode one. If anything, Caroline Paterson’s production is a cut above the David Hayman-directed revival of The Slab Boys – staged at the same theatre a couple of years ago.
The action takes place in Paisley Town Hall, decked out for the annual staff dance of AF Stobo & Co, carpet makers. With act one switching back and forth between the ladies’ and gents’ cloakrooms, we eavesdrop on the characters chewing over the repercussions of the earlier play. Phil McCann (Ryan Fletcher) and best mate Spanky Farrell (Paul-James Corrigan) are still smarting over Phil’s sacking from the slab room and failure to get into art school. Gorgeous, disparaging Lucille (Helen Mallon) arrives at the “staffie” on the arm of university boy Alan (Shaun Miller). Hector (Scott Fletcher) wonders whether his recent promotion to the design room might cause Lucille, the object of his obsession, to give him a second look.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
As the action spreads into different corners of the venue, so the playwright gradually involves us in a series of small human dramas, adding backstory for the characters we first encountered in The Slab Boys. In whose arms will Lucille end up at the end of the night? Will lonely spinster Miss Walkinshaw (Anne Lacey) pluck up the courage to phone her tyrannical mother? Will tea-lady Sadie’s aching feet survive the evening squeezed into platform sandals?
These dilemmas may appear minor, but with the action shared amongst a cast of ten, the cumulative effect is a rich tapestry, through which Byrne explores his themes of class, aspiration and social mobility. This is mostly done with characteristic lightness of touch, even in more melancholic passages, such as the scene in which Phil and Spanky watch the stars from the terrace and Spanky thinks he spies a shooting star. “Don’t be ridiculous,” counters Phil. “What would a shooting star be doing over Paisley?”
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Paterson’s production is all the more engaging for its snappy pace and deft choreography of a large cast, which responds with committed performances. Lacey gives a well-judged tragicomic turn as poor Miss Walkinshaw while Louise McCarthy is outstanding in the role of Bernadette, Lucille’s love rival. Corrigan and Ryan Fletcher bring the right balance of high jinks and casual cruelty to the leads while Scott Fletcher, repeating the role he played in 2015, is Byrne’s pathetic, unstable Hector to a tee.