Cuttin’ A Rug
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until March 4
The Winter’s Tale
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until March 4
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It’s almost 40 years since John Byrne’s famous Slab Boys Trilogy took to the stage. Set in Paisley in the late 1950s, and following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of those who work at the carpet factory of A & F Stobo and Co., these humane comedies have long since established themselves as Scottish cultural icons.
The plays may seem robust, as if they had been chiselled out of granite, but they are, in fact, beautifully constructed works of art which should be treated with care. The Citizens’ disappointingly uneven 2015 production of the eponymous first part of the trilogy (directed by David Hayman) stands as testament to what can happen if Byrne’s dramas are not presented with due diligence.
The Gorbals theatre makes considerable amends for that let down with this fine, new staging of Cuttin’ A Rug, the second in Byrne’s trilogy. Director Caroline Paterson’s production takes us to Stobo’s annual staff dance with great style.
Much of that style comes by way of Kenny Miller’s fabulous costume and set designs, in which dashes of ’50s colour punctuate the cool monochrome of, by turns, the cludgies and the terrace of Paisley Town Hall. It’s an image of the former textile town grand enough to lift the spirits of even a disheartened St Mirren supporter (such as myself).
In Act One, which switches back-and-forth between the “ladies” and the “gents”, the sexes prepare for the wooing, and the sexual, class and generational battles, to come. In the second half, as alcohol begins to lubricate proceedings, comic conflicts and human vulnerabilities come to the surface with a lyrical comedy and a poetic pathos that lift the play above mere nostalgia.
As the dodgy equipment of local band The Largie Boys short circuits the Town Hall electrics, the comedy is exemplified by the mismatch of middle-class uni boy Alan Downie (an appropriately awkward Shaun Miller) and no-nonsense glamour girl Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon on deliciously sharp form). The laughter is laced, however, with Byrne’s acute, humanistic social observation, not least in Ryan Fletcher’s superb, newly unemployed slab boy Phil McCann who belies his supposed “hooligan” status with a beautiful speech about the power of art.
Indeed, across the piece, Paterson’s casting is as carefully considered as a teddy boy’s hairdo. Laurie Ventry is as a upright as a starched shirt in the role of design room gaffer Willie Curry, while Anne Lacey gives a touchingly layered performance as the disappointed-in-life Miss Walkinshaw.
There are fine shifts, too, from Scott Fletcher (making a welcome return as luckless slab boy Hector McKenzie) and Barbara Rafferty (factory tea lady Sadie, recently patronised by toffs and in a justifiable rage).
If there is a stand-out performance, it is surely Louise McCarthy’s Bernadette Rooney (best pal to, and chief competitor with, Lucille). A temp at the factory, her hair made-up like a Mary Berry creation, she is every inch the gallus, head-turning west of Scotland lass whose tongue is as sharp as her fashion sense.
As if that weren’t enough, this excellently balanced production boasts a soundtrack that includes the likes of Bill Haley and Little Richard. This, one suspects, is the kind of show the late John McGrath was thinking of when he talked about theatre being “a good night out”.
There’s music aplenty, too, in the Royal Lyceum’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Created and, along with his band, played by the ever-excellent actor-musician Alasdair Macrae, the compositions play a variable role in director Max Webster’s bold, modern dress production.
John Michie’s carefully calibrated Leontes (King of Sicily) puts the kibosh on the family Christmas by turning with wildly mistaken jealousy upon his blameless queen, Hermione, and his equally innocent friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. As he does so, the director introduces what he, presumably, considers to be a clever device.
On the left of the stage, separated from the main performance space by a panel of glass, is the booth of a recording studio. There Macrae and the band perform a score that mixes live and recorded music that often overwhelms the action of the play, to say nothing of the distraction of performers coming in and out of the booth throughout acts 1 and 2.
Webster’s penchant for characters brandishing mobile phones is equally annoying. Presumably the Sicilians receive no news from the royal counsellor Antigonus (sent by Leontes to abandon the “bastard” baby Perdita) because he couldn’t get a signal in Bohemia.
All of which is a great pity as the performances are good and Macrae’s music comes into its own in the excellent second half. The misplaced recording artists become an entirely appropriate ceilidh band at the splendidly Scottified sheep shearing carnival in Bohemia; at which Jimmy Chisholm is hilarious as a manky, modern version of the petty criminal Autolycus, complete with shopping trolley and filthy tracksuit.
Maureen Beattie (the earnest and indignant noblewoman Paulina) and John Stahl (switching brilliantly between Antigonus and the very funny Old Shepherd) shine in a very strong cast. Meanwhile, excellent designer Fly Davis’s rendering of the play’s final, credulity-straining miracle is a thing of beauty,
Ultimately this production of The Winter’s Tale stands up well beside the world famous Cheek By Jowl company’s staging of the same drama, which played at the Citizens in Glasgow just three weeks ago. It’s just a pity that the opening acts are blighted by such a forced directorial concept.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 19, 2017
© Mark Brown