Cuttin’ a Rug by John Byrne makes a return visit to The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week, and as this play is really the next scene that follows on from where we left our “Slab Boys” in the first play- Phil McCann (Ryan Fletcher), George "Spanky" Farrell (Paul-James Corrigan) and Hector Mckenzie (Scott Fletcher), we are all now off to the annual works dance of Carpet Manufacturers A.F. Stobo & Co in Paisley (where our slab boys work). Cuttin' a Rug is set in Paisley Town Hall, and on a Friday evening in December 1957.
Cuttin’ a Rug is the second in the trilogy of Slab Boys Plays (Slab Boys and Still Life being the other two) by John Byrne which tell the story of a group of young, urban, working-class Scots during the period 1957–1972. There is a semi-autobiographical overlay here as John Byrne was a former slab boy working in a paint room where the boys ground up and mixed colours on a slab for the designers.
Along with our boys, we meet up again with some of the other workers from last time
Willie Curry (Laurie Ventry) The boss,
Alan Downie (Shaun Miller) University student temporarily in the Slab Room
Sadie (Barbara Rafferty) The tea lady
Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon) A Sketcher
Some new faces too
Bernadette Rooney (Louise McCarthy) Best chum to Lucille from schooldays
Miss Walkinshaw (Anne Lacey) An unmarried older lady of unspoken years
Terry Skinnedar (Mark Barrett) Bernadette’s boyfriend, crazy about Elvis, and thinks himself a tough guy.
Act One takes place in the ladies and gents cloakrooms and although it is full of some sharp dialogue (why actors love this play I suppose), it does at time seem to be full of short comedy lines and sketches that seem to not progress us very quickly into our dance and “Cuttin’ a Rug”. Sadly, for me, our three main characters - Phil, Spanky and Hector - although they are so well played by Ryan, Paul-James and Scott, seem to be a bit like fish out of water once they are removed from their work place environment. So much of that warm humour and camaraderie between them just seems to be missing here as their “outside work” characters take dominance. Perhaps part of the problem for me is that I did an apprenticeship (not as a slab boy) in the late 70s in somewhere that had not really changed much since the 1950s, so I was at home with the humour of “The Slab Boys”, and although late 1950s dance halls and cloakrooms may be remembered by some of the audience with warm nostalgic feelings, there is none there for me. Our three stars do get the comedy timing just right here though. What is very obvious here is that Terry is the “works outsider” and invading their territory a bit, and the almost immediate tensions between Terry and Phil are well played by Ryan and Mark.
One of the real disappointments for me here is the characters of Bernadette Rooney (Louise McCarthy) and Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon). Louise and Helen are actually great as their characters and get that feuding and at times very sharp and cutting dialogue that only “best friends” have between one another just right, but the actual characters as written come across as quite cold and hard faced. The treatment that Lucille hands out to poor Hector all evening is appalling.
Shaun Miller as Alan Downie, the upper class University student on placement, plays this parts so well and is almost an outcast in this social gathering of urban working class males and females.
When we move onto the garden terrace of the hotel in Act II our story moves forward a bit, but so much of it belongs not to “The Slab Boys” but to Miss Walkinshaw (Anne Lacey) and Sadie (Barbara Rafferty), and for me, they are just much more interesting characters that define so much better the clear class distinctions between the two of them. Anne Lacey plays with good emotional feeling an older lady who due to a possessive mother has lost her real chance at marriage and maybe happiness, and whose life now revolves around looking after her now elderly mother. Some of the best comedy lines in the show belong to her. The character is a sort of a cross between Dickens’ Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (but this one never even got her wedding dress) and Blanche du Bois from A Streetcar Named Desire. Sadie, our dressed up for the evening tea lady, has some sharp commentary to make on her status in life.
Out of all of our main boys though, it seems to be only Phil that has the insight into the larger social and economic world he is in and possibly through his art talents has the opportunity to break free of his surroundings. Some interesting commentary from Phil on many things including the perceived benevolence of the wealthy factory owner in setting up a very basic social care programme for working class people, even if their ill health is due to the working conditions in his factory.
Slab Boys touches on so many areas including social class structures, the decline of industry, friendships, relationships, religion, a youth culture dominated by American and not Scottish (or British) influences, and jobs to name a few, but the problem in the story with so many references to the films, music and stars of the late 1950s, is it has perhaps lost some of the immediate relevance to an audience from when it was first performed . The Slab Boys trilogy is now on the current schools curriculum (and there were a lot of school children in tonight), and so many of its references will mean so little (if anything) to that age group now unless they are studying them as historical events and people. The stories have taken their place now alongside Shakespeare’s plays for scholarly study. This of course was inevitable as few things date more quickly than social commentary or contemporary jokes.
If you lived through this 1950s period, or even anywhere around it, you will find this trip down memory lane a warm and pleasant one.
We sadly though never get to see much of the dance (that takes place behind the garden area’s windows), and apart from the clothing, there really are no set references that indicate or evoke the period at all. Slab Boys for me simply captured the spirit of the era, this follow up somehow misses that target at times. That said however, any play that ends with the classic line of "I'm nineteen with a wardrobe full of clothes... I've got everything to live for!" will always retain some contemporary relevance.
Review by Tom King