A bigscreen version by John Byrne of two of his plays about teens in a Scottish carpet factory, “The Slab Boys” is a whole lot of energy and visual design going nowhere special. Shackled by thick Scottish accents that will prove all but incomprehensible to American ears, and largely sophomoric acting by its young cast, this is a picture that wants to be liked but isn’t likely to pick up many partners on the theatrical dance circuit.
Painter-cum-set designer Byrne wrote the title play in 1978, based on his experiences in a “slab room” (paint-mix room) in the late ’50s. The piece went on to considerable acclaim, and a 1983 Off Broadway production starred Kevin Bacon, Val Kilmer and Sean Penn as the three roistering kids in working-class rock ‘n’ roll Scotland. It’s that kind of star power the movie desperately needs to complement its bold, brash and colorful design, which goes for a studio-based artificiality bolstered by a soundtrack of rerecorded period songs.
Setting is the dreary working-class suburb of Paisley, near Glasgow, in 1957, and the slab room of an almost Dickensian carpet factory. Larking around are Phil (Robin Laing), who dreams of going to art school; Spanky (Russell Barr), who dreams of going to America; and the geeky Hector (Bill Gardiner), who simply dreams of mailroom sexpot Lucille (Louise Berry).
Picture basically follows their personal ups and downs during one week, prior to a staff dance. Phil’s career seems to be torpedoed when his loony mother destroys his art portfolio, but he’s helped out by the spinsterish Miss Walkinshaw (Anna Massey), who’s managed to equip her own studio by pilfering from the firm.
Meanwhile, Lucille transfers her affections on a daily basis among all the boys, including preppy newcomer Alan (Duncan Ross) and older biker Terry (David O’Hara), who may be able to offer her the only thing she really wants — a singing career.
Divided by titles noting the days of the week, pic falls into neat sections, most of them starting with the fast-talking youths in the slab room and then following them to other locations. The staff dance functions as the climax, at which point the various characters have found their lives changed.
There’s nothing wrong with Byrne’s decision to go for a highly stylized, exaggerated retro look, and production designer Luana Hanson’s sets combine color and grunge in striking ways. Unfortunately, the sets and the poster-color costumes aren’t well served by the Super 35mm lensing of the normally reliable Seamus McGarvey, which has a grubby, less-than-sharply processed look on the print caught.
Performances are in an exaggerated, slightly grotesque mode, which works OK in the hands of veterans like Massey (as the spinster) and Tom Watson (as the design studio’s foreman). But the younger cast, a good 50% of whose dialogue is ear-strainingly incomprehensible, can’t give Byrne’s local humor the transfiguring oomph it needs for the audience to get involved in these kids’ lives.
Byrne’s direction is solid enough, and Jack Bruce’s assemblage of some 16 period songs keeps things moving, but there are times when you wish the characters would just break into song themselves and get it over with.