Staging a revival of a 25-year-old play to celebrate a 40th anniv-ersary may seem an odd thing for a new-writing theatre to do, but then the Traverse, Scotland's foremost platform for new plays, has never been a conformist - at least, not in the traditional sense of the word. One might even argue that it's perfectly natural for any 40-year-old to try to revive their salad days, particularly if they have wilted of late.
John Byrne's raucously funny, colourful first instalment of his Slab Boys trilogy, unlike some of the rather stale and formulaic offerings on the Traverse stage in recent years, is a howling gale of fresh west-coast air. Set over the course of one midwinter's day in the colour-mixing room of the AF Stobo carpet factory, this comedy of two young men struggling against conformity still sparkles with bravura wit - and there's not a jot of sentiment in it.
Phil and Spanky (the excellent Paul Thomas Hickey and Iain Robertson respectively) are the slab boys, posing Teddy boys on the cusp of 20, grinding down pigments, and their youth, with hefty palette knives for the designers who sit next door at their highly coveted desks. In this strictly hierarchical environment, the boys spend their days avoiding the repetitive monotony of a task that represents the relentless grind of the working life. Quite apart from the skill with which it is dramatised, this central conceit ensures that the play retains its relevance today.
The play presents a narrow, conservative world that offers everything to rebel against. There's the inequity of middle-class preferment, as Alan (a delightfully square Grant O'Rourke in a stuffy school blazer) gets a leg-up to the design room on his first day. There's also nepotism, as when Sadie the tea lady (played as a woman on the edge by Una Maclean) favours skinny, bullied Hector and gives him cream cakes, while the boys are forced to resort to pilfering a couple of forbidden éclairs.
The action is adroitly enclosed within Neil Warmington's industrial factory anteroom of chemicals and powders, and the choking pigments hanging in the air are the perfect backdrop to the banter and the cruel jibes: the testing out of boundaries, personal and corporate; the inanity of Phil and Spanky's fantasy world set against the real insanity of Phil's mother; and the secrets that betray the shallow skin of intense friendships built upon a shared desire to survive the boredom of everyday life. And staring out over it all, there's a poster of James Dean, a lip-curling symbol of rebellion, tacked up on the locker door.
This production has a tendency to graft a rather stereotypically bawdy, more knowing contemporary tone on to the play with a flatness that does not always do justice to the surrealist flair and range of the script. Within this, however, are some wonderful individual performances that delightfully exploit the intricacies of Byrne's characterisation. Caught perfectly is the disparity between Phil and Spanky's rebellious confidence as a "pack" and Spanky's half-hearted knuckling down in Phil's absence; and the inadequate crowing of the once-bullied slab boy Jack, now a designer, who is still the object of derision thanks to his pustulent, boil-ridden face. But as the bell sounds for the end of the shift, everyone, audience included, is driven on to the eagerly awaited staff dance, to be played out next month in the second part of the trilogy, Cuttin' a Rug.
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