THE STAFF OF LIFE: ORDINARY LIVES.
A shift in a Yorkshire mass-production bread factory in the 1970’s: Richard Bean , at eighteen, was there. In that perceptive, new-fledged moment of adolescence he met, he says “some of humanity’s most desperate, funny and tragic human beings”, and recognized that he was one himself. Twenty years later he wrote this play. It’s a comedy, with moments of disconcerting darkness and threat, but beyond that a lasting tribute to a world – still with us – of resigned, morose, dry-witted industrial workers.
The set (James Turner’s design) is brilliantly grimy, with a sink from hell, artfully begrubbed floor and walls and an ironic sign “Please Help Keep your Canteen Clean”. Keep? Some hope. In this we find the chargehand Blakey (Steve Nicolson, every inch the powerful man enslaved to tedium, his back-story slid artfully in late on but pretty visible in his watchful self-containment). We find chirpy Cecil (SImon Greenall), Peter (Matt Sutton) , Dezzie (Finlay Robertson) the ex-trawlerman, Colin (Will Barton) and the great, ancient , lumbering lifer Wilfred – known as Nellie – a superb evocation by Matthew Kelly of a monosyllabic monolith, an institution, mocked a little but pitied by the others as a warning of how it might be to stay in this grim job forever.
The first half, for all its naturalistic uneventfulness, is constantly gripping: not least with the incursion of the student casual worker (John Wark) who unnervingly combines vulnerability and sadness with menace. At one point, to be honest, I wondered whether the character was a supernatural manifestation: there is a real weirdness in the second half of that first act. And when the ovens jam, and dangerous manoeuvres seem essential to keep these precarious men’s jobs open, the drama of the second act intensifies. And there is both a hint of tragedy and – with Lance the student and the watchful Blakey – a genuinely redemptive moment.
All of which is making it sound a bit heavy. It’s not. Bean’s dough, as ever, rises beautifully (Eleanor Rhode directs with clarity and pace). But it’s definitely wholegrain stuff, chewy, with nourishment.
box office 0207 870 6876 http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 21 Sept