Described as a vivid piece of social observation cinema, John Byrne’s film adaptation of his stage play The Slab Boys returned to the big screen at the Glasgow Film Theatre for the 20th anniversary of its release in 1997. Attended by John Byrne himself and cast members Robin Laing and Julie Wilson Nimmo, the packed screening was filled with fierce fans of the Britpop-era cult classic.
With Byrne’s use of calculated dialogue, and dramatic, choreographed movement, echoes of the production’s theatrical background echo throughout the film – whether intentional or otherwise. Having been shot almost entirely indoors, The Slab Boys feels very much cut off from the outside world in its own surreal, alternative reality full of quirks and caricatures, mixed with the grit of 1950s Paisley.
Set over the course of a week in 1957, the film follows three working-class scamps Phil McCann (Robin Laing), his right-hand man, George ‘Spanky’ Farrell (Russell Barr), and their bully victim Hector McKenzie (Bill Gardiner) working as slab boys, mixing paint for unseen designers in a Paisley carpet factory. While Phil juggles work, visiting his mentally-unstable, recently institutionalised mother, and his efforts to make a portfolio for his art school application, the trio each make disastrous attempts to ask the office eye candy Lucille Bentley (Louise Berry) to the annual staffy.
Laing has a Danny Zuko charisma as protagonist Phil, giving a consistent, comical, and multidimensional performance. Barr is brilliantly immature, loud, and whiny as Spanky, with the two characters having a conflicting, love/hate friendship, reminiscent of Irvine Welsh’s Mark Renton and Sick Boy. The audience is quickly made aware that the slab room is a snake pit with the pair verbally and physically terrorising everyone who steps over the threshold, most of all the naive Hector. Gardiner, too, is superb as the shy, childlike, utterly adorable Hector who tiptoes around Phil and Spanky, eventually working his way up to a promotion of designer.
The explosive climatic sequence of the annual staff dance is filled with slapstick violence, drama, love, and heartbreak as we learn that someone is deep in unrequired love with the highly sought after Lucille while someone else finally gets the girl. Accompanied by a vibrant soundtrack of American, 1950s classics, covered by Scottish musicians including The Proclaimers and Lulu, music adds a tangible tension as well as a sense of fun and liveliness in keeping with the film’s eccentric tone.
The candy-coloured aesthetic of the film is vivid in every meaning of the word from the rustic slab room splattered with intense paint and multi-coloured dust, to the loud frilly suits, the Americanised rockabilly diner, the larger than life 1950s quiffs, the makeshift Paisley backdrop with an oversized moon, and the boiler suits decorated with ‘I am a Paisley Pirate’. Filled with exaggerations and melodrama, The Slab Boys, depending on your taste, could be considered either a masterpiece, much like Phil’s underappreciated artwork, or a peculiar mismatch. A genius touch to the film’s rich visual style is the sequence of comic book animations throughout from the opening titles, to a punch, to a moment of heartbreak, to the credits.
Hand-mixed by John Byrne, The Slab Boys is a wonderfully weird adaptation of the original play. The film is marmite, admittedly not to everyone’s taste with its peculiar style. But for fans of quirky, alternative films, it’s a landmark piece of cinema to be binge-watched over and over again.