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Review: Toast

Bean uses his loaf to create a tasty slice of northern life

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There is this bloke called Bean and he's written a play called Toast. That's how a colleague of mine greeted Richard Bean's first play when it opened at the Royal Court in 1999. In the one-and-a-half decades since Bean has authored the hit farce, One Man, Two Guvnors, and more recently the phone hacking play Great Britain (again a National Theatre production directed by Nicholas Hytner), which transfers to the West End this month. Meanwhile, his much-anticipated latest, Pitcairn, has just opened at Chichester.

He is, as Hytner recently said, the funniest playwright currently writing. And Toast, set in the staff room of a run-down Hull bread factory, is a reminder, if one were needed, that Bean's laughter making is also cultured.

There is depth, too. One moment in this pitch-perfect production, directed by Eleanor Rhode, generates the kind of tension to which thrillers aspire and hardly ever achieve on stage. It comes when the workers, who are under pressure to produce 3,000 loaves during a night shift, attempt to save their jobs by fixing a broken-down oven. To do so, two of them volunteer to enter the red-hot cell to free a trapped bread tin. Suddenly it's like watching a caper movie disguised as "grim-up-north" social realism.

Bean says that his play's seven characters are all based on people he met at the bread factory where he worked for a year as a teenager. He is, apparently, not portrayed in the play but either by design or coincidence, Steve Nicolson as the straight-talking foreman Blakey is less than a million miles from the author - big, well-read and bluff when he wants to be. The other characters - a fairly wide spectrum of humanity and condition - are just as well drawn, none more vividly than Nellie, who has been with the firm since he was 14 and doesn't look like he'll last the five years to retirement. Played by Matthew Kelly, he moves and looks like a geriatric tortoise. Chews his sandwich like one as well. Simon Greenall is also terrific as Cecil, a chirpy grabber of other men's testicles. His tragedy is different from everyone else's in that he actually loves working in the life-sapping place.

All their jobs rely on a piece of kit so old it can never be turned off without cracking and seizing up. What keeps them - and it - going is a common cause and camaraderie captured with superbly observed characters, a proper plot and a humour that is Yorkshire bred.

He is the funniest playwright currently writing

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