Eccles cake v Big Apple

Theatre byDavid Jays

You want to hear the ickiest line on the London stage? Anastasia Hille says it in Morphic Resonance, a new play about self-and-the-city New Yorkers. She plays a young woman with cancer, bonding with her best friend. Friend is angry that buddy is dying on her, and Hille has to hug her and affirm, "I love your anger". Hille mutters the slimy line, trying to nudge it off the stage as quickly as possible, but not fast enough to stop people sniggering.

British audiences, hearing lines like "I love your anger" instantly become Celia Johnson. Pursed lips, tense spine, winces of horror that people could say such things. Indeed, new plays in the Donmar Warehouse's "American Imports" season and at the the Royal Court may foster transatlantic misunderstanding. Toast, the first stage play by former stand-up Richard Bean, could certainly not be more British. It's 1975, a time when chairs came in curved orange polypropylene, when chicken kiev promised a garlic whiff of exoticism, when men had jobs and were unselfconscious about rubbing their tackle. Nowadays, in the shadow of Brassed Off and The Full Monty, men find work wobbling their gristle to Hot Chocolate.

We're in the canteen of a Yorkshire bread factory, full of masculine grot and disheartened tea bags and a "You Don't Have To Be Mad . . ." poster over which someone has scribbled until it simply reads "Help". In fag breaks on the Sunday-night shift the men banter and fret. (It's man's work, bread is. Women do custards and eccles cakes.) They banter about sex and fret about money and run tentative knuckles over the edges of each other's lives. When the oven jams, and silence clouds Richard Wilson's crunchy production, Bean reveals how their identity depends on work, even the jobs they know to be as unfulfilling as a wonderloaf.

Desperation and endurance bubble through tasty performances, especially from chipper Sam Kelly and Ewan Hooper's taciturn oldster, who has dough clinging to his vest like primeval sludge. Work doesn't necessarily bring you dignity, but it's the closest you'll get. Bean nicely anticipates our own having-none-of-it culture, even if he romanticises a world where everyone has a place - chargehand, mixer, spare wank - and keeps to it. Ian Dunn plays the one unsympathetic character, the conniving toady with a nasty moustache who packs Tupperware inside his Tupperware. When he snaps, "[There's] no law against bettering yourself," everyone looks baffled. He may be their shop steward, but give it five years and he'll become one of Maggie's little helpers.

Kia Corthron, whose Splash Hatch on the E Going Down opened "American Imports", has a more fiery take on class and labour. Her heroine, Thyme, is 15, married and pregnant, and is probably the smartest person in New York. She likes libraries ("Just me and all those books"), brains up on the environment, makes connections ("100 per cent thought-provoking!"). Thyme waits for no man, arguing at speed about pollution and waste, railing against fuming bus terminals and waste-processing plants being dumped in Harlem. She has strong views on excessive flushing.

Thyme (buoyantly played by Shauna Shim) is fantastically interesting company, and you sit through her explications and emphatic gestures with the same affectionate smiles as her family. Only best friend Shaneequa (Tameka Empson, strutting in lime and tangerine, her hair a rococo marvel) dares tut, "You always gotta be playing teacher". Thyme's motormouth zips so confidently around her environment that it feels like control, but when her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor, adorably rangy) falters under lead poisoning caused by his barely protected demolition job, library facts provide no refuge.

The play and Roxana Silbert's fine production hobble when Thyme begins to run down. She becomes sullen and scared without a carapace of information. But Thyme, stubbornly giving birth in her bathtub, has resilience to spare. Corthron's writing is vivid (describing a sad boy's smile - "But he don't have the happy to back it up"). And her play is about grasping life, and about education and adulthood and rogue elephants: so many things that you don't worry about whether it's an American-type play or a British-type play. It's just a damn fine play.

It was a bad idea for the Donmar to premiere Katherine Burger's excruciating Morphic Resonance straight after Splash Hatch. Thyme rails against the bubble-wrapped solipsism of New Yorkers like these, and you take her point. In this play, a woman describing her new squeeze says, "Wallace is in therapy," and she's beaming. Burger's characters sip Martinis, have abandonment issues, play croquet and try to find the novelist within. You would not want to read their novels.

"Toast" plays until 6 March at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, West Street, London WC2 (0171-565 5000).
The "American Imports" season continues until 13 March at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (0171-369 1732)

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?