King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 March 2017
Guest reviewer: High Simpson
Fizzing with energy and wisecracking brio, the Citizens Theatre’s production of John Byrne’s Cuttin’ A Rug – at the King’s till Saturday – also has a careful and deep humanity.
As the middle section of the trilogy that begins with The Slab Boys, some may expect this to provide problems of accessibility as a stand-alone piece. However, it tends to amplify rather than progress the characters and concerns of the first play, and can easily be watched without knowledge of its predecessor.
Following on almost immediately from the events of the earlier work, it shows the staff dance of A.F. Stobo carpet-makers at Paisley Town Hall in 1957. Phil McCann, one of the ‘slab boys’, has been fired and failed to get into art college; Hector, the butt of all the jokes, has been promoted, while Lucille, the object of all their desires, is at the dance with university student Alan.
If it is true that not a great deal actually happens, the same could be said of so many plays. What is presented here, in a wonderfully constructed piece of theatre blending farce and pathos, is an engrossing slice of life.
This is not just a depiction of West of Scotland working-class culture, with its brittle, gallus bravado disguising conflicts of class and religion so deeply ingrained they are not even articulated. It could apply equally well to anywhere youthful rebellion raises its head, only to bang it on the partition that separates dreams of escaping parochial oppression from the reality of earning a crust.
It is all expressed in a heightened, variety-derived language with a frantic rhythm and almost desperately humorous tone, with sparky and spiteful patter positively rattled off. It is impossible to catch every single joke, at least partly because some of the slang used never existed anywhere outside John Byrne’s head.
Director Caroline Paterson does extremely well at keeping up the necessary pace, aided by the use of period music and EJ Boyle’s movement direction.
Byrne’s poetic, hyper-real dialogue can defeat even seasoned performers; the stars here are Helen Mallon (Lucille) and Louise McCarthy as her long-term best friend/enemy Bernadette, with a crackling energy to their every line.
Barbara Rafferty’s tea trolley operator Sadie, a martyr to her feet, also has a larger-than-life quality, while still conveying the character’s resentment at the boss’s condescension. This sense that despite the laughter – or, more likely, because of it – there are victims here, is even better portrayed by Anne Lacey’s lonely Miss Walkinshaw, who is funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Such a balancing act is also performed by Scott Fletcher, the only member of the cast reprising a role from last year’s Slab Boys. His expert timing and talents for physical comedy are given full rein as Hector, but the character’s desperation is also keenly felt. Laurie Ventry’s pompous Willie Curry is another well judged performance.
Unfortunately, some of the central roles are less convincing, with the tour-de-force performances of McCarthy and Mallon threatening to eclipse the Slab Boys themselves. While a cartoonish approach serves Mark Barrett well as Bernadette’s Presley-obsessed escort Terry, the more pivotal character of Spanky McFarrell needs more light and shade than Paul-James Corrigan gives him.
Shaun Miller’s Alan is well observed but a shade too diffident. Ryan Fletcher, meanwhile, supplies Phil McCann with the necessary poetic, devilish charm but is just too louchely mature to convince as a nineteen-year-old.
Kenny Miller’s monochrome, checkerboard set, about as far from a Byrne artwork as can be imagined, works well, as do Ryan Alexander Dewar’s projections – even if they cannot be clearly seen from large parts of the auditorium.
Such minor gripes aside, there is a real comedic fizz here, allied to real depth. It is understandable that Cuttin’ A Rug will always be spoken of in relation to another play, but it provides laughter and reflection in its own right.