Why the Boys are back in town

The Traverse is Scotland's acclaimed centre of new writing. So how come the theatre is reviving a 25-year-old play for its 40th anniversary season? Adam Scott investigates
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The Independent Culture

It's a rare thing indeed for the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh's world-renowned crucible of new writing, to stage a revival. So when it is about to stage three in a row, something special must be afoot. That something special is the 25th anniversary of John Byrne's Slab Boys trilogy in the Traverse's 40th anniversary season.

Philip Howard, the Traverse's artistic director, says: "I thought we might get a bit of flak for doing a revival for our 40th anniversary. I thought, particularly writers would have a thing or two to say about that. But everyone is excited about it."

The first instalment, which gave the trilogy its name, opened at what was then the Traverse Theatre Club on 6 April 1978. And a check of the production credits will reveal not only a brace of soon-to-be household name actors, but also the playwright doubling as set designer (like his fellow writer Alasdair Gray, Byrne had been a graduate of Glasgow School of Art).

"Some years ago, after I'd written the trilogy," Byrne says, "someone asked me: 'When are you going to write something serious?' '' A laugh builds as he asks: "So birth, death and love aren't serious? I think they meant: when was I going to write something po-faced?"

Byrne's social-realist comedy trilogy begins in 1957 in the slab room at Stobbo's carpet factory in Paisley. The 19-year-old Phil McCann and his crony-in-crime George "Spanky" Farrell grind paint and dream of getting "on to a desk" as designers, while lusting after the elusively exotic Lucille. Byrne takes us with Phil, our welfare state James Dean, through his last day at the carpet factory (The Slab Boys), the staff dance that evening (Cuttin' a Rug) and into a bleak depiction of the Sixties and Seventies in Still Life. "Spanky and Phil," Howard says of the dazzling double act at the centre of the plays, "are just like a front-of-curtain Glasgow music-hall act in a way, swallowed into this very real story." But that reveals only part of the magic.

As a writer, much like Mamet or early Edward Bond, Byrne is lauded for his heightened, machine-gun dialogue. In fact, the plays' sincerity is rooted in such exchanges, more cut and paste from life than synthetic stage repartee. The vicious vaudeville of the central duo, Phil and Spanky, grows from an environment where "patter" (fast talking) is currency, and humour, like life and drink and men and women, is hard. A writer can elect to present such a milieu in a welter of sentimental cliché, or expose its very real cruelty as an intrinsic facet of a poor, tough yet loving society. The great strength of Byrne's works lies in the latter approach. "There's no such thing as comedy," the writer believes. "There's just real life and people saying the unsayable. That's what makes me laugh anyway.

"I like disguising things when people seem to be talking inconsequentially and a line can carry two or three pieces of information. I hate exposition. I really," he laughs again, "hate exposition."

Infused with rock'n'roll and pop culture, The Slab Boys has become a critical cornerstone of modern Scottish drama. While not as popular in Scottish theatre boardrooms as the sentimental cash cow of Tony Roper and David Anderson's The Steamie (recently presented at Pitlochry Festival Theatre for the third time in 10 years), it casts a long shadow over modern Scottish theatre. So much so that the "garden of remembrance" speech from Still Life was for many years something of a required cliché for aspiring actors auditioning for either of Scotland's major drama schools.

The parade of acting talent associated with the trilogy down through the years reads like a who's who of Scottish theatre, from the original director David Hayman through Robbie Coltrane, to the comic talents of Gerard Kelly and Andy Gray, up to Stuart McQuarrie (recently seen onstage at the National Theatre) and Liam Brennan (a stalwart of this year's Regime Change season at The Globe).

As the play approaches its 25th birthday celebrations, its values and themes remain relevant - even in the much-vaunted "New Scotland". The subtle sectarianism alluded to in the play (the allusion itself is subtle, thanks to Byrne's light touch) still lingers, as does the Scottish tendency to cut the successful back down to size.

Then there's the stereotypical, inarticulate Scottish male pushing you off the scent of his real self with patter and front - in a country where 21st-century health authorities take out television ads to encourage men to express themselves in a healthier way. Byrne's characters attack these ever-present elements with the double-edged sword of a ferocious indigenous humour that is at once self aggrandising and self deprecatory.

"The plays are extraordinary," offers Howard, "in the way that they combine that deeply Scottish commitment to social realism with a brilliantly heightened language, an almost vaudeville theatricality." But far from being a parochial Kailyard classic, Byrne's plays travel effortlessly across borders - as evinced by Tim Supple's much praised staging of the trilogy at the Young Vic back in 1993.

Byrne's plays strike a chord because they contain genuine revolution. In them, a working-class Catholic boy from Paisley (a middling large town in the west of Scotland with only one Catholic school in Byrne's day) strives for a life outside of the Presbyterian parameters of working hard all your days and accepting your lot. The period that Byrne recreates in The Slab Boys captures the lightning that struck Britain immediately after the abolition of National Service. Working-class boys, part of the first 20th-century generation not to be sent to war, would soon change the face of the arts and popular culture forever. The mythology of rock'n'roll is strewn with Phil McCanns from a pre-comprehensive school system that directed disaffected proto-rockers towards the art schools - John Lennon and Keith Richards among them.

All of this is to neglect how very funny the trilogy is. Indeed, Byrne once said that, "No matter what people see in the play, I didn't write it out of anger or compassion or nostalgia for the Fifties. Nostalgia is something that I just don't have any truck with." Nostalgia is a charge that Philip Howard is wary of, too. "There's a fantastic, rich body of work from the Traverse's 40 years of which Scotland should be proud. That's why we're reviving its greatest hits. Unashamedly. And," he adds, "once only." And any such charge can be tempered with the mouth-watering prospect - tentatively mooted for next year - of a new John Byrne play: the much anticipated fourth installment of The Slab Boys.

"I vowed to myself," says Byrne, "that that was me finished with them in 1982, and it was only recently, when I came up with the scenario for another play, that I thought, wait a minute - I know these people. So rather than invent new characters that I've nothing in common with at all, why not bring Phil and Spanky up to the 21st century? Kicking and screaming, of course."

But perhaps Howard's best argument for the revival of Scotland's most popular plays, at Scotland's most vital theatre, is also his most succinct. And it's one that will echo at the box office. "People want to see them again. That's the bottom line."

'The Slab Boys' trilogy is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404) from 14 November