The Slab Boys by John Byrne is a semi-autobiographical work (John was a former slab boy) set in a very specific point in time and place. The point in time is a Friday in late December 1957. The place is the slab room where apprentice designers in a carpet manufacturers (this one is in Paisley) mix and grind colours on a slab for the designers.
This particular Friday is the day of the staff dance that is taking place in the evening and to the left of the stage is a large poster for the dance that firmly fixes the date as Friday 12th December. A little error here that no one in the production team seems to have picked up is if you know anyone who was born in December 1957 they will tell you pretty quickly that in that year it was actually the Thursday that was the 12th. For December 1957, Friday was the 13th. A small point maybe, but important.
Anyhow, we immediately meet on stage our three apprentice "Slab Boys" - Phil McCann (Sammy Hayman), George "Spanky" Farrell (Jamie Quinn) and Hector Mckenzie (Scott Fletcher). The set of the slab room that we meet them in is what you would expect a room for apprentices in many work-places in 1957 to look like - an untidy mess.
John Byrne's script is based completely in this small room, and it is not the story of great adventures or plans, but just the morning and afternoon work "banter" of young working men in an apprentice situation. Anyone who has served a traditional apprenticeship in a workplace will immediately recognise the humour and the warmth of the dialogue. Although my apprenticeship was 20 years later than this setting and not in the same trade, I felt at home in the untidy set and listening and watching as the "boys' day" unfolds.
This is a very simple little slice of life story that just makes you feel that you are sharing a few hours with the characters. Nothing momentous is going to happen, but everyone has a little story to tell.
All the actors playing the central slab boys put in great performances and you do start to believe that they have spent the time and had the experiences that these old time appreticeships gave people as they "got a trade". There is a feeling of workplace warmth on stage and this helps to keep the audience engaged with the characters. All of the boys are different. Phil and George are both Rock'n'Roll Teddy boys but Hector is wearing old fashioned clothes. Phil and George are Catholics and Hector is not. That sectarian divide is present but underplayed throughout the whole story.
Phil, however, is the best defined of the three boys as we learn that his mother has some serious mental health issues and that he is also a talented artist who wants to get into art school. Do boys from his social/religious background get accepted into such places in 1957?...go and see.
Into the slab room as a new boy comes the very upper class Alan Downie (Kieran Baker). The difference in his upbringing and his employers' expectations of him and the opportunities they offer him only highlight the social divides of the period.
We also get to meet a few other members of the staff too - Plooky Jack Hogg (James Allenby-Kirk) a designer, Willie Curry (David Hayman) a floor manager, Sadie (Kathryn Howden) the tea lady, and Lucille Bentley (Keira Lucchesi) secretary and the object of The Slab Boys' various desires.
Kathryn Howden has some lovely scenes with the boys as Sadie and is great playing the type of tea lady that many a person in the audience tonight would remember from any time spent in a larger workplace of the time. Keira Lucchesi as Lucille may be the glamour object of everyone's desire, but her dialogue clearly gives her a very hard edge in her feelings to her fellow work-mates.
This is the work day before the staff social dance and all the young slab boys want to be the one taking Lucille to the dance. This gentle little strand of a story line and Lucille's reactions to the different proposals is interesting and enjoyable to watch. At 15/- (fifteen old shillings - pre decimal money) the price of the tickets for the dance did seem very high though as the slab boys were only earning 22/- (22 shillings a week). There were also some odd looking items of change being given by the tea lady to the boys at times. For anyone too young to remember pre decimal coinage, there were 20 shillings to an old pound (an old 10 shilling note does change hands at one point in the show). Denominations of money were small and coinage was large...big old pennies, half-pennies etc.
It took a short time to get into the dialogue and interplay between the main slab boys, but once you do that, you start to understand how well this little slice of every-day life has been captured on stage.
Go and see this one. Although it has been made into a film, the stage is firmly where this story belongs.
Review by Tom King