After months of critical vilifcation for a clutch of misconceived projects, the Young Vic's artistic stock is in pressing need of a fillip. Tim Supple's production of John Byrne's greatest theatrical hits goes part of the way towards that end.
Byrne's semi-autobiographical trilogy follows his surrogate Phil McCann, first seen in The Slab Boys as a gallus 19-year-old in 1957, harbouring fierce ambitions towards the Glasgow School of Art while enduring the workaday grind (literally) in the "slab room" of a carpet factory. He and his drainpipe-trousered comrade Spanky play often savage tricks on the slab-rrom runt Hector, pinch sticky buns from the tea-lady's trolley, lust after the statuesque Lucille, give lip to all and sundry and just occasionally pulverise pigments for use by the carpet designers outside whose desks they covet.
The Slab Boys remains a marvel of switchback language and moods. Byrne routinely brings several different vernaculars together within a single sentence to create linguistic crossbreeds with the head of one idiom, claws of a second and wings of a third. Phil and Spanky's exchanges are sharp as a tack and, just as they career between the vocabulary of Paisley teddy-boys and mock-public-school banter, so the emotional register can switch instantly from superficial mirth to its darker underside and back again without missing a beat. The ability to deal with personal tragedies and everyday oppressions without subordinating the comedy of the script to the darker vein, or vice versa, is one of Byrne's greatest strengths, and the first play of the trilogy is its most ebullient manifestation.
Its follow-up, Cuttin' A Rug, is set at the factory's staff dance on the evening immediately following the action of The Slab Boys. Its attempt to locate itself in a different style from the earlier play are frankly too laboured. The first act, set in parallel women's and men's cloakrooms before the "staffie" begins, comes across as a 45-minute prologue; the frequent asides of characters' inner thoughts to the audience feel uncomfortably Godberesque. The verbal and emotional sensitivity are still in evidence, but if seen on its own it would be robbed of more than half its strength.
Still Life – taking place in a cemetery, its two acts set ten and fifteen years after the other plays – is another kettle of fish again. It sees Byrne giving in either to the impulse to effect a lengthy and comprehensive closure to the trilogy, or to vicarious wish-fulfilment in rewriting his own past, or both. He so immerses himself in the play's heart-to-heart dialogues, in finally laying bare the characters of Phil the struggling artist and Spanky the rock muso, that he simply goes on a good twenty minutes too long. Despite this over-enthusiasm, the play contains moments of brilliantly understated emotion and seemingly casual re-statements of earlier motifs. Still Life has the feel of a coda, but possesses the strength to stand on its own as a play.
Supple's direction is sure-footed and unobtrusive. He serves the scripts admirably; the most telling point to note is that none of the potentially awkward mood collisions come a cropper. As Phil, Paul Higgins feelingly conveys both the character's manic larking around and the defensiveness in which it is rooted; more crucially, he does not overplay the element of "author's proxy" in Phil until it emerges naturally in the final play. As much attention is given to Spanky who, in Stuart McQuarrie's portrayal, is astute enough to keep up with Phil but never quite gets ahead of the game. Katy Murphy, the acerbic Miss Toner in Byrne's 1986 television serial Tutti Frutti, brings the same down-to-earth suss to her performance as Lucille.
Byrne's own set designs are naturally adroit and impressive (with the exception of an inexplicable neon sign of the title of Cuttin' A Rug, which conveniently but bafflingly throws a weak blue light on the play's "blackout" scenes). His costume designs are more questionable; obviously he knows what he wants, but the women's costumes in particular often look less concerned with authenticity or evocation of a particular mood than pandering to contemporary notions of flash. At any rate, whether or not the plays look right, they indisputably look good.
Supple presumably hopes that audiences will opt to see the entire trilogy (either on separate nights or over eleven mercifully un-gruelling hours on a Saturday) rather than settle for one play (which, in all candour, would have to be The Slab Boys itself). It remains to be seen whether his calculation will pay off. In any event, the knives which had been drawn in the Young Vic's direction are likely to be sheathed again for a while.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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