Comedy from a satisfying plateful of characters

First Night: 'Toast' Royal Court Theatre London
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The Independent Online
CARLA LANE used up the potential of the noun "bread" pretty conclusively with her BBC sitcom. So Richard Bean, casting around for a title for his delightfully sunny new play set in a mass production bakery in Hull in the Seventies, has clearly been up against it. The piece was originally christened Wonderloaf but, for God knows what legal reasons, it now hits the stage rejoicing in the name Toast.

Watching Richard Wilson's observant, beautifully acted production at the Royal Court, I kept wondering why Dough or The Bread Line were ruled out. After all, the factory on which Bean trains his knowing lens is an ailing one, its structural and investment weaknesses all set to be exposed when a thriving Bradford sister-outfit suffers a cock-up one night and Hull finds itself required to bake enough bread for two cities.

If the men cannot meet this ultimatum, there is a strong likelihood that the place will be shut and the workers thrown on the scrap heap. And between then and success stands a jammed oven and a double-dealing colleague.

As the writer Jerome K Jerome rightly asserted, there is nothing quite as restful as watching other people at toil. That, however, is not the only reason why men-at-work plays (such as David Storey's The Contractor or Stephen Jeffrey's A Going Concern) prove so satisfying in the theatre.

Audiences like to enter alien territories, whose mundane tribal details are wonderfully exotic on stage, if not in life. Set in the cruddy teabag- stained canteen, Wilson's production pulls you right into the needling camaraderie, the power-jostling and the mutual survival techniques of this hard-labouring world, establishing the divergences between these men with a care that takes in, say, the very different way each smokes his cigarette.

In a superb ensemble, Sam Kelly is hilarious and touching as the beaming fiftysomething Cecil, whose henpecked sex-starvation is betrayed in the approving magnate-like prurience with which he follows the love lives of his work-mates.

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 just the right degree of barmy self-preoccupation by Christopher Campbell. He fondly imagines he is a messenger from beyond the grave, and corners each of the men in turn with his sinister solicitude.

The comedy of this takes a surprisingly poignant turn when some fellow- feeling is shown for this institutionalised inadequate by tough, unsmiling Mark Williams. Having spent six years in prison he knows about consignment and despair. Ewan Hooper, too, is immensely moving as "Nellie", the stoical trembly, old workhorse who, like the ovens he is enslaved to, would seize up and die if ever switched off. Indeed, in terms of writing, acting and directing talent, this Toast is buttered on both sides.

Paul Taylor