Douglas Adams stretched his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy to five installments, so there’s a clear precedent for playwright John Byrne to offer a fourth part to his celebrated “Slab Boys” trilogy. But the challenge the Scottish writer faces is how to make his characters as interesting at the end of their careers as they were at the start. Where the first play was made hilarious by the frustrations of menial employment in a 1950s carpet factory, “Nova Scotia” is made inert by the frustrations of a life rapidly slipping away.
Catching up with the characters with whom he made his name in “The Slab Boys” (1978), “Cuttin’ a Rug” (1979) and “Still Life” (1982), Byrne draws heavily on his own life. It’s no secret the character of Phil McCann (Paul Morrow) is partly autobiographical, the two men being accomplished painters with similar social and domestic backgrounds.
Like McCann, Byrne grew up with a schizophrenic mother, and, like McCann in “Nova Scotia,” he now lives with a more successful younger woman in a secluded house in north east Scotland. Just as Byrne’s partner, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton, basks in Hollywood acclaim, so McCann’s wife, Deirdre Chance (a feisty Meg Fraser), courts media fame as a nominee for the Turner art prize.
Into this setting stumble McCann’s long-lost factory buddy George “Spanky” Farrell (Gerry Mulgrew), now a bearded rock star with a Transatlantic turn of phrase, and his former wife Lucille Bentley (Gerda Stevenson), still as glamorous as when she was “every slab boy’s dream.”
They are joined by Corky Doyle (Nicholas Karimi), a pop video maker enjoying a secret affair with Deirdre, and a radio interviewer less interested in McCann than his wife.
It’s a scenario that gives Byrne the opportunity to reflect on an older generation, the passage of time and the compromises that follow. McCann, Spanky and Lucille are children of the rock ‘n’ roll era and behave with much the same venom, energy and gallows humor as they ever did. Their joints are stiffer and their jokes linger on cancer, mastectomy and the imminence of death, but the memory of their younger selves has not left them.
Excellently portrayed by Morrow, Mulgrew and Stevenson, they refuse to behave as if the world has passed them by — still lusty, witty and ambitious.
What the play lacks, however, is a central dynamic to tie Byrne’s themes together. It comes close in an explosive exchange between McCann and his wife in which the older man laments the vacuity of contemporary art and admits to trying to derail her career as a conceptual artist. Here the tension between one generation and the next is at its most acute, but, in the end, it’s just an argument and doesn’t get us closer to the heart of the play.
That heart is the story of a man whose career highs appear to be behind him. It’s a valid subject except, for all his irascibility, McCann does nothing to drive the plot. Unlike his younger self, he is no longer an active player, but a victim of things beyond his control. There’s a lot of frenetic farce-like activity as characters run on and off Michael Taylor’s unfashionably naturalistic set, but none of it is driven by McCann’s dilemma.
As a result, when Byrne delves further into autobiography, satirizing himself for using his mother’s trauma to fuel his art and suggesting McCann is the product of incest, the details seem less explosive than extraneous.