THEATRE AND DANCE REVIEWS
The Slab Boys
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until March 7
Romeo And Juliet
Seen at Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, run ended;
Touring until March 7
Seen at The Arches, Glasgow, run ended;
Touring until February 28
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The Citizens Theatre Company’s revival of John Byrne’s iconic comedy The Slab Boys, the first part in the writer’s much-loved trilogy of the same name, has been eagerly anticipated. Little wonder, then, that one couldn’t turn one’s head on opening night without seeing a famous face, be it First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Makar Liz Lochhead or actor Gavin Mitchell.
Set in 1957, the play focuses on events on a single day in the “slab room” of Stobo’s carpet factory in Paisley. There, the trainee designers, known as “slab boys”, mix the colours for the design department on marble slabs. Or, rather, they would do, were they not having a sly fag, falling at the feet of co-worker (and “every slab boy’s dream”) Lucille Bentley, and generally arsing around.
The production – which is directed by David Hayman (who directed the play’s premiere, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, back in 1978), assistant directed by his eldest son, David Jr, and stars his second son, Sammy, in the lead role of slab boy Phil McCann – bears many of the hallmarks of a classic Slab Boys revival. This is especially true of the set, designed by Byrne himself, which is a fabulous creation, like a paint explosion inside a museum of 1950s American popular culture.
The play has a tremendous capacity to be simultaneously bold-yet-subtle. Beneath the colourful veneer of its comic creations – not least working-class, Catholic teddy boys McCann and George ‘Spanky’ Farrell – there flow some weighty matters, ranging from the pernicious consequences of Masonic/Orange bigotry to the devastating impact of severe mental illness upon McCann’s mother.
For the most part, the cast embody brilliantly the drama’s combination of comic chutzpah and emotional nuance. Kathryn Howden’s no-nonsense factory tea lady Sadie is a joy, while Jamie Quinn (as smart-mouthed Spanky), Scott Fletcher (hapless slab boy Hector) and Hayman Sr (playing puffed-up manager Curry) are never off the pace.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Sammy Hayman’s playing of McCann. The recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate is palpably out of his depth and, consequently, unable to deliver the rhythm of Byrne’s lines. His role requires not only a sense of frustration and rage (which he exudes), but also, and crucially, an endearing, humorous impertinence and a personal charisma (both of which elude him).
McCann and Spanky are the double act around which this superb comedy revolves. It is a great pity that an otherwise impressive production is so badly undermined by an ill-judged piece of casting.
The problem with the Bard In The Botanics company’s touring production of Romeo And Juliet is of a different nature entirely. I have written on numerous occasions in these pages about the short-sightedness of arts funding body Creative Scotland (and its forerunner, the Scottish Arts Council) refusing to fund Gordon Barr’s company. I’m delighted that CS has finally come up with money for a Bard In The Botanics tour, but disappointed in the production Barr has chosen.
The director is right in thinking that, in restaging (and substantially recasting) his 2012 take on Shakespeare’s famous romantic tragedy, he stands a good chance of getting bums on seats. The pity is, the concept (a contemporary teen conflict, performed by a cast of just five, set around the swings in a play park) is far from his best.
The actors, who double, sometimes triple up, lack nothing in guts; even if Terence Rae’s Romeo seems too much like a sulking adolescent. However, Barr’s attempts to give the piece a sense of contemporary relevance, particularly through carefully choreographed violence and hard-edged electronic music, are overwrought and unconvincing, leaving the Bard’s tragedy looking like a sub-standard, 21-st century West Side Story.
Nor is one entirely convinced by Kam-Ri Dance Theatre’s show The Typist. Focused on the life of a left-wing Basque woman who arrived in England as a child refugee from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, it interweaves dance, live music and song, recorded voice (courtesy of Alexei Sayle, playing an avuncular Liverpudlian friend of the typist) and projected images and texts.
It is almost inevitable that these disparate elements do not cohere as a work of dance theatre. The piece might be better described as an illustrated concert, in a similar vein to Paco Peña’s Patrias, which played at the Edinburgh International Festival last year.
The work jolts between live performance and the imparting of information, including major historical facts and anguished details about the fate of the woman’s loved ones and comrades in Spain. The engaging musical score ranges from flamenco to jazz.
Flamenco singer Olayo Jiménez impresses, as does dancer Raúl Prieto; although his partner, Kerieva McCormick (in the title role) is more accomplished in song than in dance.
Admirably engaged with a period in European history which continues to shape our continent more than we often realise, The Typist is a timely reminder (in these days of rising ultra-nationalist forces from France to Ukraine, Hungary and Greece) of the immense dangers of fascism.
However, even with McCormick (who also directs) being assisted by co-director Ben Harrison (of Grid Iron theatre company fame), the production’s attempts to knit political history together with art never quite come off.
The Slab Boys transfers to the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14.
Tour dates for Romeo And Juliet can be found at: http://www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk.
Tour dates for The Typist can be found at: http://www.kam-ri.com.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 22, 2015
© Mark Brown