The Slab Boys

The Slab Boys

The Slab Boys is a play by the Scottish artist and playwright John Byrne. The play is the first part of a trilogy, originally known as "Paisley Patterns" but now called "The Slab Boys Trilogy", which tells the story of a group of young, urban, working-class Scots people during the period 1957–1972. In "The Slab Boys", all the action takes place in the morning and afternoon of a Friday in the winter of 1957. The scene is the Slab Room of Carpet Manufacturers A.F. Stobo & Co. of Paisley, a town near Glasgow, Scotland. The slab room is a small, paint-spattered dungeon where apprentice designers mix and grind colours for the design department. Coping with this boring task requires a dangerously strong sense of humour.

"The Slab Boys" was premiered at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1978. It was first performed as a Broadway production starring Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn & Val Kilmer, produced by Laura Shapiro Kramer and Roberta Weissman and directed by Robert Alan Ackerman at the Playhouse Theatre in New York City in 1983. The production received an Outer Critics Circle Award.

"The Slab Boys" was released as a film in 1997, directed by the author [] . It starred Anna Massey, Tom Watson and Julie Wilson Nimmo. "The Slab Boys Trilogy" was revived in 2003 by the Traverse Theatre starring Paul Thomas Hickey and Iain Robertson in the lead roles. This is the first time that the Traverse Theatre have ever done a revival and it was received to great critical success.

In April 2008, the Traverse Theatre is premiering "Nova Scotia" [] , the fourth part of "The Slab Boys" story which follows the characters of Phil, Spanky and Lucille into the 21st century.

Dramatis Personae

Phil McCann (sub-20): Slab Boy. An artist with great natural talent, as yet unrecognised. Good-looking and probably quite smart. Frustrated ambition and sad personal circumstances are hidden by irreverent bravado and a caustic wit.

Spanky Farrell (sub-20): Slab Boy. Phil’s sidekick and the other half of the double-act. Nearly as witty and rebellious as Phil but in danger of conforming to society.

Hector McKenzie (sub-20): Slab Boy. The runt of the litter. Left bewildered by the other two’s high jinks and prone to be the butt of their japes. A geek.

Jack Hogg (mid-20s): Designer and ex-slab boy. Suffers from very bad acne and has a personality to go with it. Trying to work hard and get ahead but probably not very good. What Hector will probably grow up to become.

Lucille Bentley (sub-20): Sketcher. Every slab boy’s dream, probably wet. Not all that bright, but more than a match for Phil and Spankie’s shenanigans. Her ambitions run no further than being taken out frequently to the dancing and cinema by a car-driving, well-off, good-looking hunk.

Alan Downie (sub-20): New Boy. Car-driving, well-off, good-looking hunk. His dad is an old pal of the factory owner and he’s landed the job while waiting to go to University. Not nasty or a snob, though.

Willie Curry (40s): Boss of the slab room. Claims to have been in the army during the recent hostilities but this is debatable. Knows Phil and Spankie are up to no good but is often out-witted by them nonetheless.

Sadie (40s): The tea lady. Been there, done it, got the tee-shirt. Constantly bemoaning her feet, layabout husband and recent bout of breast cancer.


This story is essentially a rites of passage yarn in which a handful of young people grow up fast in the tough working-class culture of 1950s urban Scotland.

The opening scene introduces the three incumbent slab boys bantering away on a Friday morning. Phil and Spankie are the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of the slab room and Hector is the target and source of most of their humour. Enter, Mr. Curry, the boss, who is always trying to shame Phil and Spankie into doing some actual work. Unfortunately, Phil and Spankie are far too clever to fall for that old ruse. In comes Jack Hogg. He used to be a slab boy, but has come up in the world and is now a designer. This is not as grand as it sounds – he is only one step further up the ladder and Phil and Spankie never let him forget it. Jack brings with him Alan Downie – a rather posh youngster whose father knows the boss and who is going to work in the company for a while before going off to University. This does not endear him to Phil or Spankie.

Once some of the early hilarity subsides, we learn that Phil’s mother has been yet-again incarcerated in a ward for the mentally unstable. We also find out the real reason for Phil being late this morning: he was presenting his portfolio at the Glasgow School of Art. He is now waiting on a phone call that will tell him how he got on.

Eventually, Sadie the world-weary tea-lady wanders in. She is wise to Phil and Spankie but is charmed by Alan’s superior manners. Sadie is also selling tickets for the Staff Dance that takes place that night. To everyone’s amazement, Hector buys two – and reveals that his mystery date is Lucille – the office belle!

Finally, in strolls Lucille. Phil and Spankie badger her for details about Hector’s courtship and it transpires that it is only in Hector’s fantasy-world that she is going with him. The two turn on Hector but end up feeling rather sorry for him and resolve to help him win the fair dame. How they do this is by crudely tailoring his already crudely-tailored clothing and attempting to give him a haircut but succeed only in injuring his scalp with the scissors.

After the lunch-break (which provides the interval in the play), the Slab Boys re-assemble. Lucille appears and Phil starts to broach the subject of Hector – he’s going to ask Lucille out on Hector’s behalf. Before he can reach the punch line, Hector’s bloodied face appears at the window and terrifies her. They are hiding him while his clothes are being “altered”. There thus ensues some typical farce as Hector is hidden during various walk-ons by Jack, Lucille and Mr. Curry.

Sadie re-appears for the afternoon tea-break and bemoans her useless husband. It appears that, following a recent mastectomy, he even threw out her prosthetic breast, believing it to be a burst football. She advises Lucille to avoid men and the trouble they cause.

At last Phil gets round to asking Lucille about the Staffie. Thinking he is asking on his own behalf, she agrees to go with him! Phil points out he was really asking about Hector and Lucille predictably blows a fuse.

The wages come round while Phil is out and Spankie is perturbed to find that Phil’s and Hector’s are missing – they will come round later having been specially made up. This is a sure sign that they are being sacked! This is indeed the case for Phil but then Hector comes in looking rather shocked and P&S assume he’s had his jotters. However, startlingly, it appears he is actually getting promoted to the design room.

In a double-whammy, Alan enters, having taken a phone call for Phil and curtly tells him that he didn’t get in to the Art School. While he’s digesting this a note arrives that his mother, who had briefly escaped from the asylum, is back in custody. Finally, Curry appears. Phil blows off at him over the sacking but Curry retorts that he actually stood up for Phil.

Spankie knuckles under and gets back to grinding the paste as Phil, all his hopes gone, jauntily leaves the stage.


One theme that is apparent in the play is rebellion. The story takes place in the Teddy-Boy era of the late 1950s when, perhaps for the first time, young people were challenging the society in which they found themselves. The rebel leader is Phil, who wants to quit his safe job-for-life and become an artist. Ranged against him is the authority of the establishment, in the form of Mr. Curry and also (perhaps more ominously) the class-system. His nemesis, Alan Downie, can walk in and out of jobs, can borrow cars and can pick up girls as he pleases. His inbred advantages immediately doom the cleverer and more talented Phil to second place in any contest. Spankie seems to represent the masses. He would like to follow Phil but when he sees him defeated, he decides that discretion is the better part of valour and starts swimming with the tide.

Hinted upon, but not fully explored in the play is what Scotland’s current First Minister calls, “Scotland’s secret shame” – religious sectarianism. Phil and Spankie are Catholics, descended from Irish immigrants of the 19th century (this is clear from their surnames). Hector, Jack and Mr. Curry are of Scots Protestant stock. In one scene, Hector, despite being obviously inferior to Phil and Spankie intellectually, physically and sartorially, decries that at least he is, “…not a bloody pape!” Could this be why Hector is finally promoted ahead of the other two? Probably not – the writer is careful not to demonise Phil’s antagonists; Mr. Curry, if short-tempered, seems extremely tolerant, given the abuse he has to suffer. He gives Phil every opportunity to conform. Alan also is well versed in the public school ethos of fair play and never knowingly uses his position against Phil.

So why does our working-class hero ultimately fail? Perhaps it’s a Scottish thing, that unerring national ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Or perhaps the writer wants to warn us that the socialist system has within it the seeds of its own destruction. But maybe it’s just that a play usually ends better on a sad note.


The dialogue is written largely in standard English but contains many usages which will be unfamiliar to a non-Scots of the 21st Century. The phrases in this glossary are listed by order of appearance in the text. Page numbers refer to The Salamander Press edition of 1982 (ISBN 0-907540-20-1).

wireless (p 4): A radio. In this case, a small battery-powered transistor radio (as opposed to the large mains-powered valve radios that were the norm from the 1920s-40s). These devices began to be mass-produced at the start of the 1950s and for the first time allowed young people to listen to music anywhere, anytime. Look what that led to.

planked (p 4): (Scots) Hidden.

Luxembourg (p 4): An independent radio station transmitting from the Duchy of Luxembourg. Since it was not under the control of the BBC, it tended to be a bit more edgy than the Beeb and had no problem with Little Richard.

tube (p 4): (colloquial-derogatory). Idiot.

cry (p 4): (Scots) To call. If you think about it, it’s quite logical (call out, cry out…)

plooky chops (p 5): Your chops are your cheeks. Plooks are large acne spots, possibly pus-filled.

Dettol (p 5): (trademark) A rather powerful disinfectant, liberally applied to any abrasions to reduce the risk of infection, gangrene etc. Stings a bit, though.

highers (p 6): At the time of the play, compulsory education ended at 15 with the school-leaver able to read, write and do basic ‘rithmetic. Brainy pupils stayed on and did vocational exams known as highers. These were a prerequisite for further education.

weans (p 7): (Scots) Children. Now you will get this joke: Q: What did John Wayne call his kids? A: The Waynes.

pieces (p 8): (Scots) Sandwiches. A play-piece is a wee snack for a wean to eat in school at play-time.

herries ("sing." herry) (p 8): (colloquial-derogatory) A not very attractive, possibly hirsute, young lady. The phrase is a contraction of Hairy Mary which is self-explanatory.

lassies ("sing." lassie) (p 8): (Scots) A young lady, perhaps even a pretty one. You can use this term safely in front of your auld Scots granny.

bennies (p 9): (colloquial) Contraction of benzedrine (a stimulant). One of the earliest synthetic drugs (invented in 1928) and, therefore, one of the first illegal narcotics.

beeling (p 9): (Scots) Very angry. Scots pronunciation of boiling.

lavvy brush (p 9): (colloquial) The brush you use to clean the toilet bowl. The word lavatory is shortened to lavvy in colloquial Scots.

jotters (p 10): (colloquial) Originally, the wee notebook that schoolchildren write their lessons in. In this context, it is used to describe the official document containing a record of pay and tax deducted in your current employment. When leaving (or being dismissed from) such an employ, you would be given this document for your information. Thus, “I got ma jotters” means “I have been made redundant”.

glaikit (p 12): (Scots) Rather old word meaning uncomprehending or bewildered. Example: “He’s that glaikit he let the bus go by him.”

tanner (p 12): (colloquial) In the old money (pre-decimalisation in 1971), a £1 was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 12 pennies or pence. A tanner was a small silver coin worth 6 pence and officially called a six-penny piece or a six-pence. It was worth enough to buy maybe a pie and cup of tea with.

youse (p 12): (Scots) Second person plural pronoun, equivalent to the French "vous". Unlike standard English in which the plural and singular of the 2nd-person pronoun are the same (you), in Scots, we differentiate: “Are youse all going tae the pictures, or is it just you, Wullie?”

greeting (p 12): (Scots) Crying, but in the sense of tears rather than calling. A greeting wean is a real nuisance.

gannet (p 13): (colloquial) A rather greedy person. A real gannet is a seabird that follows fishing boats and eats everything and anything the fishermen throw overboard while gutting the fish.

clatty (p 13): (Scots) Extremely dirty or unpalatable: “I can hardly see oot o’ these windaes, they’re clatty.”

ecco (p 13): (Latin) Here is, behold, voila. Latin was taught to a basic level in all Scottish schools well into the 1980s. Some if it has even rubbed off on Phil.

chookie (p 14): (colloquial) Idiot, fool.

toley (p 14): (colloquial-derogatory) Literally excrement, usually human. Used as a very condescending insult.

shufti (p 15): (Arabic) To take a look at. Many phrases from the Middle East entered colloquial English having been brought back by servicemen who’d been out defending the Empire.

snash (p 16): (colloquial) Cheek, nonsense.

fankled (p 18): (Scots) Tangled up.

keech (p 20): (colloquial-derogatory) See toley.

china (p 20): (colloquial) Pal, friend. “Hullo there, china!” is a common Glaswegian greeting. It is rhyming slang for "mate", "china" being short for "china (porcelain) plate".

simmit (p 21): (Scots) A vest (ie, the sleeveless thing you wear under your shirt).

haun-knitted (p 24): (Scots) Knitted-by hand. Figuratively, it means unsophisticated, rough and ready.

skite (p 24): (Scots) To skid or slip. “I didnae see the ice on the pavement and skited onto the road!”

Penny Dainty (p 24): (trademark) A big chewy toffee. Sold singly for a penny from a sweetie shop. One of these could supply twice the recommended daily dose of sugar for a large adult.

daud (p 25): (Scots) A lump, a dollop, a chunk.

skint (p 26): (Scots) Lacking in ready cash (Scots pronunciation of skinned).

gouping (p 27): (Scots) Gaping, as in a wound.

palooka (p 29): (American) A thick country oaf. In "Pulp Fiction", Vincent Vega calls Butch Coolidge “you big palooka” when he meets him in Marcellus’s bar.

napper (p 29): (Cockney) Your head. There is a line in the popular cockney song Any old iron? which goes, “you’ll look neat from yer napper to yer feet…”

gadgey (p 30): (colloquial) Cool, wicked, ace,… whatever.

happed-up (p 30): (Scots) Very well protected against the weather. An essential skill in Scotland is for mothers to be able to get their weans happed-up for going to school on cold winter mornings. If properly done, a wean happed-up in a duffle-coat, balaclava and scarf should only be able to see straight ahead.

cludgie (p 31): (Scots) A toilet. The word conjours-up images of an old porcelain toilet bowl with a high-level cistern and chain in a brick out-house.

poke (p 32): (Scots) A bag. Usually of paper for containing sweeties or chips.

The Clyde (p 33): (geographical) The River Clyde flows through Glasgow and for centuries brought prosperity to the city and nation. Glasgow fly-men (con artists) would traditionally prey on poor souls from foreign climes who would fetch up bewildered on the quay-sides. Thus someone who had “come up the Clyde on a boat” was fair game for a ploy. Sadie is reminding us that she wasn’t born yesterday.

foosty (p 33): (Scots) Stale. “They pies are foosty.” Is a common complaint in the City Bakeries.

stoat (p 34): (Scots) To bounce. A rubber ball with good bouncing abilities is a stoater. Metaphorically, this can be applied to people -“Look at her! That lassie is a real stoater.” – although in this case, Sadie is speaking literally.

skelp (p 34): (Scots) To slap, strike. Weans are often getting skelped.

scunner (p 35): (Scots) To sicken, put off. “See me, I’m scunnered wi’ mince” means that I have had it so often, I no longer appreciate it.

high-doh (p 35): (colloquial) In a musical scale, high-doh is the highest note (right after tee – a drink with jam and bread). Someone who is being wound up with stress or worry will eventually arrive at this point.

stookie (p 35): (colloquial) Plaster cast, in this case on a broken leg.

Lucky Bag (p 35): (trademark) A poke containing a few sweeties and a cheap plastic toy. The selection of sweets and toys inside was unknown until you’d bought it hence whether you liked the contents or not was a matter of luck.

The Western (p 35): (geographical) The large hospital serving the West End of Glasgow is called the Western Infirmary.

they've went (p 35): (grammatical) Interesting usage, common in the West of Scotland. This involves using a perfect tense construct (they have gone) but replacing the past participle (gone) with the imperfect tense (went). Such usage would be regarded as illiterate barbarianism in England but actually sounds fine when delivered in a Scottish accent. Legend has it that the famous film of 1939 starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, when it played in Glasgow, was re-titled "Went with the Wind".

jaxie (p 36): (colloquial) Your backside, bum, arse, rear-end etc. Not sure of the derivation – could be an eastern import (those colonial soldiers again).

Domestos (p 36): (trademark) Domestic bleach. Not a very appetising drink…

Going to get out of my road? (p 37): (grammatical) Would you get out of my way? It is a contraction of the rhetorical question, “Are you going to get out of my road?” There is a current Scottish TV character with the catch-phrase “Gonny no dae that?” (ie, Would you please not do that?).

duration (p 38): (historical) During the Second World War, many special measures (rationing, restrictions on travel, etc.) were introduced, "for the duration of hostilities". Thus, "the duration" came to mean an indefinite period during which hardship must be endured.

Bells (p 38): (trademark) A famous brand of Scotch Whisky.

cowp (p 39): (Scots) A rubbish dump.

smout (p 40): (Scots) A person of small stature.

skelf (p42): (Scots) Literally, a splinter of wood. In this case, someone who is as thin as one.

caw the legs (p 43): (Scots) Literally, to trip up. In this case, to undermine his authority.

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