Tuesday, 10 February 2015

John Byrne and David Hayman - Reviving The Slab Boys

One afternoon in the late 1970s, John Byrne turned up at the Citizens Theatre canteen in Glasgow to see actor David Hayman. At that time, Byrne's first play, Writer's Cramp, had been a hit at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, though Byrne was still best known as a painter and set designer. Hayman, meanwhile, was the mercurial young star of the Citizens acting ensemble who was about to play Lady Macbeth.

Over a cup of tea, Byrne handed Hayman what he called a present. Byrne told Hayman it was a new play he'd written, and which he wanted him to direct. When Hayman read what turned out to be The Slab Boys, it was a revelation.

Byrne's tale of Phil McCann and Spanky Farrell, a pair of Paisley teddy-boys with artistic ambitions beyond A.F. Stobo and Co's carpet factory and a mutual eye on Lucille Bentley - the femme fatale of the factory floor - after all, wasn't what Hayman was used to.

“I'd been acting in all these reinterpretations of the classics,” he says, sitting besides Byrne in the foyer of the same Citizens Theatre almost forty years later.“Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Troilus, Nijinsky, all of that, and suddenly I've got a piece of work that reflects my culture, my background, my longings, my dreams, my aspirations, and tears ran down my face. I was deeply moved and deeply excited by it. I'll never forget that day.”

Byrne had already recognised an affinity with Hayman enough to seek him out.

“We'd come to the Citz and seen David onstage,” Byrne remembers, “and he was the only Scottish guy, and the only working class guy, I presumed, in the company, and he was the only director I knew. I'd seen him as an actor and thought he was wonderful, and I knew he could do it. I had total confidence in him.”

Byrne's confidence paid off, and Hayman's 1978 production of The Slab Boys at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, featuring the late Gerard Kelly and Billy McColl as Spanky and Phil, went on to change theatre in Scotland forever. Its tragi-comic depiction of working class youth cemented the reputations of both Byrne as a dramatist with a flair for baroque pop-culture derived exchanges, and Hayman as a director of verve with an instinctive understanding of his fellow actors as well as Byrne's text.

The Slab Boys went on to spawn two sequels, Cuttin' A Rug and Still Life, which charted what Spanky, Phil and Lucille did next and which made up what became known as the Slab Boys Trilogy. A fourth play, Nova Scotia, appeared in 2003.

With both men now regarded as masters of their chosen crafts, Byrne and Hayman are in the midst of revisiting The Slab Boys for a very special revival that opens this week to coincide with the Citizens Theatre Company's seventieth anniversary.

“It's always had a dear place in my heart, The Slab Boys,” says Hayman, “and indeed the trilogy, because it was four years of my life. I can remember the way the original lines were delivered. I can remember the original inflections, but what I didn't want to do was repeat it in any way. Both John and I agreed that we had to start afresh and treat these people as brand new characters who we know nothing about, and start from there. We're also discovering other aspects of the play that maybe didn't come out before. Everyone says it's a lovely fluffy comedy, but there's a dark side to it. There's savagery in there.”

Byrne nods his agreement.

“That's the way you go out feeling, rather than feeling it when it's happening,” he says. “It only dawns on you afterwards, and I heard so many people coming out afterwards, especially the women, saying my God, I don't believe I was laughing at that, and that's the whole point of it, to make them laugh for two and a half hours. That's your defence mechanism, humour. There's no point in self pity.”

Hayman's revival of The Slab Boys arrives onstage at a time when serious concerns are being expressed about how today's working class youth can access artistic careers in the way that Byrne's characters, and indeed Byrne and Hayman themselves, were able to do.

“We've both got similar stories, John and I,” says Hayman. “He started off in the slab room with dreams of being a painter., and I started out as an apprentice in the steelyards with dreams of being an actor. His mammy was mad, and my great granny died screaming her head off in a loony bin in a straitjacket. So there's lots of things that we share which have impacted on each other, and that makes it easier.”

Byrne points out that “there's a lot of things which people have been spared, because you don't have to explain them. And thank God they've been spared. It's what makes you. I lived that life, and not only survived it, but triumphed, and thank God I had that life. You don't get the life you ask for. You get the life you've got.”

As the likes of David Morrissey and Julie Walters have pointed out, there is a fear that economic restraints will leave a new generation of Spankys, Phils and Lucilles undiscovered.

“It is difficult,” Hayman admits. “It costs you £70 to even have an audition at drama school, so where are working class kids going to get the money for that? Already the industry's against you. Not only is that much easier for the posh boys, but the privileged are also running the broadcast corporations and film companies, and the writers come from the same backgrounds, so they're creating work for their own particular class. So even if you do break through the barriers and manage to scramble up the greasy pole, are the opportunities there for you? When we were younger there were all sorts of working class dramas, but now you rarely see them unless you're working in soap operas.”

Hayman paraphrases legendary trade unionist Jimmy Reid, who pointed out that behind every tower block window could be an aeroplane pilot, a Formula 1 driver or an artist.

“What I love about this play,” says Hayman, “is its aspiration. The last line of the play is one of the greatest lines ever written. These guys are at the arse-end of the industrial process. There's one door into the slab room, which is a nightmare. It's hell on earth, but there's this guy dreaming of being something bigger, something better, something richer, something different. I hope that will be inspirational for young people coming to see it who can believe they can do something.”

Like Hayman, Byrne retains that same fiery determination that helped him become the great artist he is.

“If you want something like that,” he says, “there's nothing on earth that will stop you achieving that. Nothing. There's no barrier. There's no thing you haven't been through already.”

“There's nothing to help you,” says Hayman, “but there's nothing to stop you either.”

The Slab Boys, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, February 12-March 7; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14.

www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, February 15th 2015

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