Magazine article The Spectator

Best Thing Since

Magazine article The Spectator

Best Thing Since

Article excerpt

A critic's place is generally in the wrong; in this column last week I was suggesting that precious few really good new plays emerge from seasons dedicated to new writing, and here we have at least one exception to prove the rule. At the Royal Court Upstairs, formerly the Ambassadors but now a theatre so gutted by the Court's bulldozers that they might as well just tear the whole place down and put up a tent instead, there is a new play called Toast by Richard Bean which is as funny, touching and brilliant an account of men at work as any we have had since David Storey's The Changing Room, also at the Court, some 30 years ago.

This time we are in a Yorkshire bakery in 1975; among the bakers are the usual archetypes (the veteran, the union man, the sinister newcomer, the joker) but Bean, much helped by his director the veteran comic actor Richard Wilson, brings them all to new and wondrous life. True, we never see them actually baking the bread; but the rumble of the offstage ovens, and in particular the terrifying moment when that rumble goes suddenly silent, gives a background against which the author can make all his points about a slowly vanishing but fascinatingly inbred (forgive the unintentional pun) community whose lives are measured out not in teaspoons but in slices of white bread for toasting.

The metaphors here are almost too apparent: lives crumble like loaves, and characters are toasted in the heat of their own personal or familial agonies. But some truly wondrous characters have been created, not least Sam Kelly playing the jovial Cecil almost exactly halfway from Arthur Askey to Eric Morecambe among vaudeville comics of this period, and Christopher Campbell's truly creepy newcomer, an apparent student with the fixation that he has been sent by God to help the bakers meet their ultimate maker. There is no reason why Toast, in its superbly antiquated setting by Julian McGowan, should not set itself free of the current Court season and survive for months if not years in the West End as one of the most truly original comedies of the late Nineties.

In this same season at the Ambassadors, Roy Williams's Lift Off is a hugely topical account of racial intolerance and unrest, centred on two schoolboys (Sid Mitchell and Ashley Chin), one black and one white, whom we then meet in later life (Michael Price and Alex Walkinshaw) when their conditioning from childhood has already damaged their chances of later peaceful coexistence.

On a brilliant set by Ultz, which is effectively a raised boxing ring around which the audience sits on all four sides, the play is staged by Indhu Rubasingham like a prizefight, but it never really achieves a knockout punch or even a victory on points, largely because Williams, having highlighted the fact that racial intolerance starts in the schoolyard, seems oddly uncertain as to what else he wishes to tell us about it. …

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