More than thirty years on from her first encounter with Byrne's play, Paterson herself is directing Cuttin' a Rug in a brand new production at the Gorbals-based Citizens Theatre, where Hayman directed a revival of The Slab Boys in 2015. Cuttin' a Rug is set a few hours after the first play, which focuses on the thwarted ambitions of Spanky Farrell and Phil McCann, their lust for Lucille and their bullying of fellow slab boy Hector. This pair of fast-talking paint-shop apprentices are desperate to get out of A.F. Stobo and Co's Paisley-based carpet factory and into a world where James Dean was king and rock and roll gave pulse to disaffected youths just like them.
The second play, originally performed as The Loveliest Night of the year and later broadcast on radio as The Staffie, sees the pair swagger into the staff Christmas dance at Paisley Town Hall, where even more drama ensues. As Paterson explains, her early experiences of the play, both as an onlooker and an actress, have left their mark.
“Cuttin' a Rug was one of the first plays I ever saw,” the Kirkcaldy-born actress turned director explains. “I thought it was such a great play, just to hear the language John wrote for it. It's a play about young people, and it was already huge when I saw it, and it's written in a way that I think is still relevant now. Everyone has nights like that, where they don't want to go to work on Monday because they made such a fool of themselves, and I just think John Byrne's our national treasure. To have someone like that who can write and draw and paint, he's a genius.”
Byrne sat in for the first read-through of Paterson's production.
“We were in awe of him,” she says, “listening to all his stories about the time the play is set in. A lot of young people don't know that time, but the period is kind of back. We're putting some movement in it, and for me the play is like a dance anyway. It moves so fast, and the audience are never going to catch every joke, but that's okay.”
Paterson's approach to Cuttin' a Rug is a long way from her first encounters with the play.
“There's a lot of depth in there,” she says, “and I didn't realise that then. I was twenty-four when I was in the play, and I had to be taught how to wear high-heels. I was a Doc Marten's girl. But there's a seriousness to the play, and then John's writing spins all that on its head with a joke.”
Paterson's connections to Byrne's plays go deeper, to a production of the third play in the trilogy, Still Life, which she directed for Raindog, the actor-led company which ripped up the rulebook with a series of shows possessed with a grit that arguably pre-dated the 1990s so-called in-yer-face wave of cutting-edge theatre. Paterson's production was notable not only for featuring company co-founders Robert Carlyle and Alexander Morton in the lead roles, but for featuring scenes from the first two plays in flashback sequences, so audiences effectively saw the entire trilogy in one.
“Still Life is set in a graveyard, and is all about remembering,” Paterson says of the final play, set in 1972, fifteen years after the previous two. “I had to edit it so it all fitted in. We used twenty minutes of Cuttin' A Rug, but it worked beautifully, and I knew that was the one I'd love to do. In Still Life, Phil and Spanky are at Hector's grave talking about him, and in Cuttin' a Rug Hector tries to kill himself. His journey after that is that he ends up dead in a toilet, so there is depth in the play, but you have to look for it. It's not just a comedy.”
Cuttin' a Rug is the first time Paterson has directed at the Citizens Theatre since her 2003 production of John Osborne's play, The Entertainer. She has lived in London for the last twenty-three years. During that time there was a lengthy stint on East Enders, while she later directed episodes of the Raindog produced TV drama, Tinsel Town. More recently she has been working with Acting Out, a London-based theatre company with whom she has helped devise plays with people with mental health issues.
“It's a platform for discussion,” Paterson says of the initiative, “and it feels very worthwhile to do something like that.”
While Cuttin' a Rug and its sister plays may have been huge when Paterson was a teenager, today they are veritable institutions which have spoken to audiences across several generations.
“I think there'll be people who come along to see this production who've seen all three plays, and who hold them close to their hearts” she says. “The plays are like your favourite book in that way, but they completely stand alone, so younger audiences who might not know them can come and see Cuttin' a Rug and totally get it.”
In the first week of rehearsals, Paterson took her young cast on a trip to Paisley Town Hall to soak up the old school atmosphere of one of the most regal looking buildings in town.
“It's very grand,” says Paterson of the Hall, built at the end of the nineteenth century with money bequeathed by thread manufacturer George A. Clark. “I just love the idea of this beautiful hall where all these kids are getting drunk and trying to get a girlfriend, and it all going horribly wrong, because that's what happens sometimes, and it's quite real in that way.”
With Paterson's revival of Cuttin' a Rug arriving onstage at a time when Paisley is bidding to become UK City of Culture 2021, the the play's setting has even more resonance.
“I think all three Slab Boys plays are important,” says Paterson. “I think audiences today will totally connect with the experiences of the people in the play, especially because it's set where it is. I really want to celebrate Paisley and everything that came out of it, and John Byrne is a really important part of that, so it's a joy to do.”
Cuttin' a Rug, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 8-March 4; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, March 7-11.
The Herald, January 24th 2017