Still Life, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

A keenly anticipated theatrical event in Scotland, the revival of The Slab Boys trilogy marks the Traverse's 40th anniversary and is an attempt to recapture the popular success that John Byrne's seminal work has enjoyed in the past. But this third and final part, opening barely two weeks after the second instalment, has a disappointingly tired air.

Still Life is a difficult play to pull off, full of long, wide-ranging duologues, with a repetitive format and an overlong second half. This under-rehearsed production offers some rather forced comedy. There are too many lines fluffed, tripped over and garbled, which the unrelenting speed of delivery does nothing to mask. The trilogy has lost its spark.

Set 10 years after the events of Cuttin' a Rug, the play sees Phil McCann and Spanky Farrell meeting up in a Paisley graveyard to mark the untimely death of their fellow slab boy Hector as he's interred next to "the cherub with the kilt and the fly swat" on a grey day in 1967. Phil and Spanky attempt to reconnect by reverting to the factory-room sparring of their 19- year-old selves, but it all falls flat in the face of grief, resentment and wasted lives.

Still Life is shorter on laughs than Cuttin' a Rug, with each joke darker than the last, and Roxanna Silbert's production is unrelentingly acerbic. There are crucial problems that are not addressed, such as the outdated comedic references that make this instalment less accessible to a modern audience than its predecessors.

It is in the parts, rather than the whole, that this play hits the mark and earns its place in this Traverse trilogy. There is some sweet resolution of relationships, particularly the fleeting romantic tension hinted at between Phil and Lucille in the first part of the trilogy. Molly Innes is simply brilliant as Lucille, a hard nut with soft centre and easily a match for Iain Robertson's Spanky or Paul Thomas Hickey's Phil. John Kazek is again excellent as Plooky Jack.

But the key to this trilogy is Phil's eventual realisation that the reason that he can't escape the oppressive inevitability of his frustrated dreams lies within himself. Phil is in mourning - an open sore, blaming everyone but himself, and displaying nascent signs of an aggression that threatens to engulf him. Hickey more than suggests that Phil may be going the way of his manic depressive mother.

Spanky is no less restless, lurching from one addiction to another in his rock-star haze, spiked by poignant sadness in his relationship with the child whom he hasn't seen for five years. But despite this darkness, there's an overriding theme of rebirth. Byrne is hitting on creation with a capital C, for it is in the cycle of life - birth, death and rebirth - that the characters find resolution and a salvation of sorts.

And although this may not have been quite the rebirth of Byrne's trilogy that many had hoped for, it is a timely and worthwhile revival that will undoubtedly mature as the three plays run consecutively over the next few weeks.

'The Slab Boys' trilogy runs in rep to 25 January (0131-228 1404)