THEATRE / The triumph of the demotic: Paul Taylor on The Slab Boys Trilogy, a welcome return to form for the Young Vic

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The stiffest endurance test I have faced in the theatre was when the English Shakespeare Company did a weekend of both Shakespeare history cycles (ie seven plays) at the Theatre Royal, York, in 1988.

By the punch-drunk climax, the audience members were virtually presenting one another with bouquets, never mind lobbing floral tributes at the stage. It was as though we had survived the Hundred Years War together. Flowers were also flung on Saturday at the end of Tim Supple's revival of The Slab Boys Trilogy, an all- day marathon at the Young Vic. A ritual gesture, perhaps; still, it's a nice surprise to find something other than brickbats being hurled at this address.

The Young Vic is emerging from notoriously troubled times. After a nightmare first year at the helm, Supple has lost Julia Bardsley as co-artistic director and is now trying to find an audience, that useful feature of the theatrical experience which the debut season effectively dispensed with. To be fair to Bardsley and Supple, the individual productions had more artistic merit than you would have guessed from the atrocious reviews. The miscalculation lay in the unvaried diet of experimentalism that was being dished up.

Omma, likely to go down in history as the only production from which an entire original cast walked out, was in fact an intriguingly radical reappraisal of how to stage Greek tragedy without psychological motivation. It was let down not by its ideas but by the weakness of the replacement cast. Even if it had found favour with the public, though, it would still have been folly to follow it with yet another deconstructionist take on a classic, not Shakespeare's Hamlet, but Bardsley's Hamlet?.

Earthy, robust, and about as stuffily 'high art' as a ferret down a pair of drainpipe trousers, The Slab Boys Trilogy feels like an exuberant act of exorcism, and suggests that Supple, in launching this 'Young Bloods' season, has recognised that youth-oriented theatre can be rebellious in ways you don't need to be a middle- aged expert in the avant-garde to understand.

Moving from the slicked-back quiffs and crepe-soled shoes of the late Fifties to the long hair, cowboy boots and fringe jackets of the early Seventies, John Byrne's trilogy begins in the slab room of a carpet manufacturers where frustrated Paisley youths grind paint and wind one another up, proceeds through the staff dance and finishes, rather Hamlet- like, in a graveyard where various time bombs are detonated and where, with loopy appropriateness (though he can't get anyone to listen to him), a gravedigger finds an actual unexploded bomb.

The shows are beautifully designed by the author, and cast to perfection. Or almost so, since, for the long-term story to make sense, the main female character needs to be a bit of a stunner. Appealing, humorous looks, such as the actress has here, aren't enough to explain some of the male motivation. Paul Higgins and Stuart McQuarrie are wonderfully equal, though, to the demands of playing the trilogy's central (almost vaudeville) double-act.

Higgins communicates to just the right degree the forlornness under the defensive, wise-cracking irreverence of the malcontent McCann, the lad with the mad mother and a talent for art that doesn't get him nearly as far as no discernible talent for rock music gets his fat joker of a friend.

Lord Macaulay, it has been said, wrote in a style in which it was impossible to tell the truth. Byrne writes in a style in which it would be impossible to surrender to despair. However depressed they are feeling, there's such a yeasty, register-hopping vitality about the vernacular in which his characters talk, that a linguistic perkiness would poke up, you feel, even in the suicide note.

It is not really the plot, which gets a bit mechanical by the third play, but the demotic richness and comic resilience of the dialogue which keeps you coming back for more.

The Paisley expression for 'cool, good' is 'really gadgey'. Let's hope the trilogy makes the Young Vic really gadgey again.

The individual parts of John Byrne's 'The Slab Boys Trilogy' are in rep at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 (071-928 6363)

(Photograph omitted)

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