THE SLAB BOYS
CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
This revival of John Byrne’s great comedy The Slab Boys (the first play in the famous trilogy of the same name) is a major event in Scottish theatre. Not least because it is directed by renowned actor-director David Hayman (who directed the world premiere in 1978) and designed by Byrne himself.
Set, in 1957, in the “slab room” of a Paisley carpet factory, where the colours are ground on marble slabs by trainee textile designers known as “slab boys”, the play has hosted some famous names. One Robbie Coltrane, for instance, played designer Jack Hogg in the world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.
This time round, Hayman (who also plays pompous factory manager Willie Curry) has opted to make the production something of a family affair. The director’s eldest son, David Jr, is assistant director, while Sammy Hayman (the second of his three sons, who recently graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) plays the pivotal role of slab boy Phil McCann.
There is much to admire in this latest revival. Byrne’s set, for instance, a hyper-real, almost cartoonish mess of paint and late-fifties Americana, is a thing of beauty. Hayman Sr is typically excellent as Curry, marching stiffly around the factory, spinning a self-mythology of wartime exploits in Burma.
There is one distinct flaw in the production, however. The Slab Boys demands careful casting. A young actor in one of the titular roles can be made by his success. However, wrongly cast, he can also be horribly exposed.
Such, sad to say, is the case in Sammy Hayman’s playing of McCann. Like the single loose thread from which a carpet begins to unravel, his casting looks like a catastrophic misjudgement.
McCann and George ‘Spanky’ Farrell (played beautifully by Jamie Quinn), a pair of wise-cracking, working-class teddy boys, complete with brothel creepers, are one of the most brilliantly observed comic double acts in Scottish theatre. Young Hayman nails his character’s underlying bitterness and menace, but has none of the cocky charm and warm humour that are so essential to the role.
Given Hayman Sr’s long and illustrious association with the play, it is a painful irony that his latest production should founder on the casting of his son.
At the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until March 7. Transferring to King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14. For more information, visit: citz.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 15, 2015
© Mark Brown