On the surface, Phil McCann is a demotivated, disengaged, working class Slab Boy with very little prospects.
Despite his humour, he seems to take pleasure in confronting authority and shows little concern for the feelings of others.
However, Byrne slowly scratches the surface, revealing a complex, self-destructive character driven by conflict and ambition to escape the life that he has been dealt.
The theme of ‘dreams and escape’ runs throughout the play: Each of the Slab Boys aspires to escape the slab room and enjoy the luxury of ‘a desk’.
But Phil has bigger dreams. His ambition is grander and fiercer than any of the other characters, and he is attempting to get into Glasgow School of Art when we meet him.
Phil’s upbringing has been particularly challenging: He was raised in a low-income house and has acted as carer for his mother who suffers from extreme mental illness.
As a result, opportunities to progress in life have not always been accessible to Phil. This leads him to build a resentment towards the educated and privileged classes (represented in the play by Alan Downie). This results in Phil ranting to Alan before threatening to
cut into him:
What do you know about living in a rabbit hutch with concrete floors and your old man’s never in and you’re left trying to have a conversation with a TV set and a maw that thinks you’re St. Thomas Aquinas?
This resentment presents a conflict for Phil. While he aspires to be a part of the society he despises he also resents the limitations of the working class.
Spanky reveals that Phil’s ambition was evident from a young age - he tells Alan that Phil had stayed on at school to sit his Highers. Unfortunately, Phil’s desire to succeed was derailed by his inability to control his behaviour - he was put out of school for throwing biscuits at a teacher.
Phil’s wish to go to art school and pursue his passion is clear evidence of his intense ambition. It is worth noting that Phil chooses to keep his application a secret and does not ask for any assistance during the process. Is this because of pride, a hatred of being judged, fear of public failure?
Spanky makes it clear that he knows little of Phil's plan, saying to him
Well, I never knew nothing about it either. When Curry confronts Phil about his application, he replies
Hey what are you doing with them drawings? That’s private!
He goes on to question Curry’s authority, once again;
Whose permission do I need? Yours? This suggests both rebellion and vulnerability, or Phil’s need to maintain a disengaged bravado as a defence mechanism.
As well as his background, many other barriers stand in the way of Phil's ambition. The post-war era was only the very beginning of social mobility. A ‘know your place’ attitude was still widespread in the UK, particularly towards the new generation of working-class teenagers.
For example, when Phil’s folio is discovered, Curry is quick to overlook his talents, choosing to berate his irresponsible attitude instead:
So that’s why you were more than an hour late.
However, the biggest barrier between Phil and his dreams is Phil himself.
Phil refuses to speak openly about his ambitions. He neither seeks out nor accepts help. Instead, he lashes out at those who take an interest.
Spanky warns Alan that Phil will
break his jaw if he catches them looking through his folio. And Phil even keeps Spanky at a distance when questioned:
I don't have to tell you everything.
Despite all of the barriers Phil faces, and the rejection he suffers at the end of the play, he somehow remains hopeful.
Giotto was a Slab Boy!
His final line and cartwheel seem like a celebration of life. This shows Phil's consistently optimistic belief that anything can be achieved. This suggests that he has not lost his fierce ambition, despite a succession of brutal setbacks.