CASTING AROUND for a title for his delightfully funny play set in a mass production bakery in Hull in the Seventies, Richard Bean has clearly been up against it. Carla Lane had already used up Bread. Watching Richard Wilson's beautifully acted and observed production, I kept wondering why Dough or The Bread Line had been ruled out. After all, the factory on which Bean trains his knowing lens is ailing, its weaknesses set to be exposed when a thriving Bradford sister-outfit suffers a cock-up one night and Hull has to bake enough bread for two cities. If the ultimatum can't be met, it looks like the place will be shut down. And between the men and success stand a jammed oven and a double-dealing colleague.
As Jerome K Jerome rightly asserted, there is nothing quite so restful as watching other people at toil and audiences like to enter alien territories whose tribal details are wonderfully exotic on stage, if not in life. In this cruddy teabag-stained canteen, you're yanked right into the needling camaraderie, the power-plays and mutual survival techniques of this hard- labouring world. Wilson establishes the divergencies with a care that attends to their different ways of smoking a cigarette.
In a superb ensemble, Sam Kelly is hilarious and touching as beaming fiftysomething Cecil, whose hen-pecked sex-starvation is betrayed in the almost magnetised prurience with which he tracks his workmates' love lives. Bean has had the inspired idea of introducing a new recruit in the shape of an impostor: a posh, tweedy weirdo from the local asylum, played with perfectly barmy self-preoccupation by Christopher Campbell. He fondly imagines that he's a messenger from beyond the grave and corners each of the men in turn. The joke is that nobody is really deceived. That comedy takes a poignant turn when fellow feeling is shown for this inadequate by Mark Williams's tough, unsmiling Blakey. Having spent six years in prison, he knows a fair bit about confinement and despair. Ewan Hooper, too, is immensely moving as "Nellie", the stoical, trembly old workhorse who, like the ovens he's enslaved to, would seize up and die if momentarily switched off.
The production lovingly re-evokes the decade that style forgot. I wince to admit that the clothes worn by Matthew Dunster's excellent Peter (straining cheesecloth, retina-abusing flares) is the kind of outfit your humble reviewer wore when basking on the lawns of Balliol with his now opposite number at The Daily Telegraph.
O tempora, O mores, Oy veh.
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