It is nigh impossible, on Mark Williams's first entrance, not to mutter to oneself in the style of his Fast Show character, "This season I will be wearing mostly Seventies mutton-chop sideburns." But Richard Bean's play about the Sunday shift in a Hull bread plant, although driven by comedy, steers well clear of the zany in favour of realistic observational material.
In Richard Wilson's production, staged on Julian McGowan's nicely shabby works-canteen set, a number of plot strands are woven together. The interactions of the half-dozen regular shift workers, with their various conversational and character tics and goosing games (irrepressibly sunny Sam Kelly and defensively bilious Matthew Dunster deserve special mention), are the background against which the dramas are played out: when the main oven gets jammed, should they phone the management and thus provide an excuse for the company to close down the ageing plant, or risk life and limb by crawling inside to free things up? What will be the outcome of the manoeuvring for position between chargehand Blakey and "spare wank" (this is, presumably, a technical term) Colin as regards the plum job at the new plant in Bradford? Is new hand Lance the student he at first claims to be, the angel of death as he later declares, or just a nutter from the local institution? Is the absent manager Beckett really "shagging that lass on custards"?
We know that this is a slice of life, as Bean's biography tells us he worked in such a plant in Hull at the same period in the mid-Seventies in which his play is set. As a talented comic writer, too, he knows the right amount of humour with which to leaven his script; to borrow a metaphor from the show, he does not clog up the works by putting it in big in the tin. It is all rather reminiscent of some of the work of Bean's fellow Kingstonian John Godber. Not to belittle Toast – far from it – but it is saddening to reflect that, without the Royal Court and the National Theatre Studio, this natural and skilled comic writer would not have been given the audience he deserves. This is not a snobbish claim that such houses should be busying themselves with "worthier" projects; it is an indictment of commercial producers for making so little medium-term investment in new writing talent.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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