The play begins in the slab room of the A.F. Stobo and Co Carpet Manufacturers. Phil turns up late because he had an entry interview for Art School. Spanky covered for his absence by reporting to Mr. Curry that Phil had diarrhoea. Mr. Curry enters, unimpressed with Phil’s excuse and proceeds to berate the Slab Boy’s work ethic (a recurring conversation):
I’ll be calling back in five minutes and if you bunch are still lounging about you’re for the high jump, understand?
As an act of punishment he confiscates Hector's wireless radio and informs the Slab Boys that he will be watching them closely.
Jack Hogg enters and introduces Alan Downie, a young man from a more affluent background who is to gain work experience at the factory before attending university. The theme of social class is introduced here as we see the contrast between Alan and the Slab Boys, and the resulting cynical attitude the Slab Boys have towards him. For example, they mock his expensive wristwatch:
You'll give yourself a hernia lugging that about, son
It is evident from his introduction that Alan’s middle class upbringing has given him the access to university, well-paid jobs and luxury commodities that the Slab Boys, particularly Phil, crave.
The Slab Boys continue to torment Alan and much humour is derived from the banter between the working class Slab Boys and the somewhat naive new boy. Parody is used to insult the intelligence of Alan as the Slab Boys explain how the slab room works, while deliberately getting Alan’s name wrong:
Right Alec... this here is what we call a sink... s-i-n-k
Hector attempts to defend Alan on occasion, but is quickly silenced by Phil and Spanky. They remind him that he will never escape the humdrum existence of the slab room:
Hector, you might as well resign yourself... you're in the slab room till Miss McDonald down the canteen gets a rise out of her suet souffles
Up until this point Phil appears to be a work-shy joker with very little ambition or empathy. However, a new dimension is added to his character when he speaks openly with Spanky about his mother’s mental illness. His vulnerability is evident when he asks Spanky -
D’you think going off your head’s catching? before revealing that his mother had been incarcerated the previous evening after running
up the street with her hair on fire and diving through the Co-operative window. She is to spend six weeks in an institution, where she will be secured to her bed and given electroconvulsive therapy to treat her illness.
Phil confides in Spanky, revealing the difficulties he faced during his childhood as a result of his mother’s illness. He describes the traumatic
holiday he spent at his mother’s convalescent home when he was eleven, the only redeeming feature of which was a young woman doing a cartwheel in a celebration of the fact she was alive.
Despite the tragic nature of the conversation, Phil and Spanky remain good-humoured throughout – the first of many uses of black humour throughout the play. This can be seen when Phil explains that his mother will receive electroconvulsive therapy following her incident with the Co-operative window:
Making a pun on the use of a generator as treatment, and the double meaning of
shocking create humour in the bleakest of situations. Their conversation is brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Mr. Curry who, unimpressed with their standard of work, demands
to see some solid work being done in the slab room.
Sadie, the world-weary tea-lady, enters the slab room to sell tea, cakes and tickets to the staff dance which is to take place that evening. She is quick to defend Hector against the Slab Boy’s taunting, telling them to:
Leave my beautiful wean alone, you pair of Hooligans!
Sadie is unimpressed by Phil and Spanky's manner. In stark contrast, she is enamoured with Alan and is quick to praise his politeness, telling the Slab Boys
That boy could learn you savages a thing or two.
Before exiting, Sadie chases the debts owed to her for tickets to ‘the Staffie’ and Hector stuns everyone by buying two tickets to the dance, one for him and one for his supposed date, Lucille. As Lucille is
every Slab Boy's dream the characters are unconvinced she has chosen to attend the dance with Hector.
We meet the beautiful Lucille for the first time as the first act is coming to a close. We learn that, Hector’s date with Lucille exists only in Hector’s imagination. Phil’s suggestion that she and Hector are to attend the dance together is taken as an insult and she replies:
I've seen better hanging from a Christmas Tree!
Phil and Spanky respond by offering to help Hector restyle himself (after berating his current style choices and discussing their own ‘Teddy Boy’ outfits for ‘The Staffie’). Phil takes Hector to the
lavvies to begin his transformation.
Alan and Hector exit, leaving Spanky to chat openly with Alan. They discuss the details of grinding colours and the difficulties the Slab Boys face in escaping the slab room and finally ‘getting a desk’ in the Design Room:
…who knows? Depends if they take to your features… how many desks are free… how the Boss is feeling… what the Berlin situation’s like…
Mr. Curry interrupts their conversation, keen to impress Alan with his expertise. When Alan finds Phil's portfolio, Mr. Curry assumes it belongs to Alan and is extremely impressed with the artistic talent until he discovers that they are in fact Phil’s. This is an example of Mr. Curry’s prejudice and shows his differing attitudes towards the Slab Boys and Alan. He deduces that Phil’s lateness was caused by his application to the Glasgow School of Art and scolds him for taking time out of work. Phil is left to explain himself to Alan, Spanky and Jack Hogg, who remind him that
it's a pretty tough entrance exam
Phil informs them that he will know by this afternoon as
a doll in the Art School promised to phone him, pretending to be the hospital to bypass the
no personal calls rule. Phil is completely confident that he will be successful stating that:
It was a cake walk kiddo. All the dame has to do is pick up the phone...give us the nod.
The act ends with Phil’s revelation that Hector has disappeared from the toilets, having
managed to get free from the rope Phil has used to tie him to the radiator. He reveals that Hector is not only missing, but bleeding (following an incident with the hair trimmers) and in a state of undress (as his clothes have been sent for 'alterations').
For the first time we see a real darkness and possible violence to Phil's nature, and while Spanky is quick to protest, he is instantly distracted by the lunchtime hooter.