Bent bureaucrats, ‘fake dykes’ and bad bakers — this week’s theatre

Comic potential is squandered in Southwark Playhouse’s Eye of a Needle, while Matthew Kelly gives Richard Bean’s Toast an unexpected layer of pathos and humanity

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Eye of a Needle

Southwark Playhouse, until 20 September


Park Theatre, until 21 September

Eye of a Needle, by newcomer Chris MacDonald, looks at homosexuality and asylum. Gays from the Third World, who’ve suppressed all evidence of their orientation at home, find they have to leap out of the closet once they reach the UK, and provide documentary proof of their hot-tub marathons and nitrate-fuelled rubdowns. Lots of comic potential there.

We open with a boastful Ugandan describing his ten-in-a-bed shenanigans to a shy English civil servant, who transcribes his X-rated testimony with silent professionalism. The message is upbeat: good old Britain helps grateful refugees escape from tyranny and prejudice. Then everything curdles. We meet Natale, a Ugandan lesbian, who treats the application process as an affront to her dignity. She acts like a returning movie star whose passport has been mislaid by bungling pen-pushers. Britain, she hints, should roll out the red carpet for her, and count itself lucky. It turns out she’s a counterfeit gay whose wicked scheme is to win a passport by seducing her adjudicator.

This twist is dramatically promising (‘bent bureaucrat beds fake dyke’), but MacDonald fails to pursue it because he wants his play to make statements about politics rather than about people. He succeeds in this. The asylum process is close to meltdown because civil servants have to take on the roles of the researcher, the detective and the judge in every case they handle. Because they’re aware that an over-hasty decision may result in the death of a rejected applicant, they’re tempted to behave like humanitarians too, and to rubber-stamp every claim they receive. They also hear the press calling for fewer incomers and this tempts them to behave like right-wing politicians. All very dispiriting.

And the production adds extra doses of chaos. In scene breaks, the actors bustle and quick-march through the ranks of plastic seats to affirm what the script has already told us. Sweetness and levity are in short supply here. The British characters are all angry, stressed-out emotional failures. There’s a junior civil servant with a drug problem who represents youthful idealism. His boss is a rancid, cynical divorcee. And these sweating drudges have to deal with a bolshie Scots lawyer who bangs about the place like a bottled wasp swearing at people. More warmth between the characters would help. And a play without a central figure is always hard to get to grips with. Hopefully, this script, a learning-curve effort, will propel MacDonald a few notches up the scale.

Another learning curve at Park Theatre. It’s a new play by Richard Bean. Or rather a play new to audiences. Toast, which premiered in 1999, is based on Bean’s experience as an apprentice baker in the 1970s. His plotting is deft and economical. The bakery receives a last-minute commission for several thousand loaves but the order is ruined when a sabotaged tin gets snagged in the oven. While the red-hot furnace cools down, the chatty characters hang around the canteen casually revealing their inner lives. They’re easy to like and nicely differentiated, not only in their backgrounds and attitudes, but in their habits of speech and action.

Bean is clearly at home with a cast of working-class males. (No women here.) And politically he’s on the right rather than the left. The only obnoxious figure is the shop steward, whose charm and generosity cloak a traitor’s heart. As you’d expect in a factory, there’s lots of swearing but Bean falls into the error of trying to get a laugh by ending a scene on the word ‘cunt’. To be fair, Alan Bennett does the same in The History Boys. Eleanor Rhode’s stylishly grubby production has a fine cast led by Matthew Kelly who plays a chain-smoking grouch on the brink of retirement.

He slobs around, caked in grease, with his Humpty-Dumpty beer gut peering out over his waistband. Yet just a few years ago Kelly’s prime-time show, Stars in Their Eyes, was the biggest thing on Saturday night TV. Kelly himself was like the Queen Mum crossed with an urbane polar bear. A little ungainly, and palpably shy, he had an angelic neediness that endeared him to the nation. And here he is on the London fringe playing to 200 punters. And he’s brilliant. Age has crinkled his face up like a treasure map. His squashed eyes, shadowed jowls and mobile, rubbery lips give him the look of a wizened Victor Mature. And he knows how to get a great deal out of very little. He squats on a corner-stool, fag between his fingers, croaking out monosyllabic observations, and giving the show an unexpected layer of pathos and humanity.

Toast is not as adventurous or funny as Bean’s subsequent efforts but it’s well worth a look.

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Show comments
  • Jeremy Trawle

    Do you always give away plot twists in your review so that the show is ruined for people who’ve read it? Or is it only for plays that have a left wing outlook?