Toast

Richard Bean
Snapdragon Productions
Park Theatre

Simon Greenall (Cecil) and Matt Sutton (Peter) Credit: Ben Broomfield
John Wark (Lance) and Matthew Kelly (Nellie) Credit: Ben Broomfield
The Cast Credit: Ben Broomfield

As so often with Richard Bean, his first full-scale play took on deadly serious issues but made viewers laugh as it did so.

Toast is set in a soon to close bakery's rest area and, in two hours, manages to shine a light not only on male camaraderie under pressure but the failure of Britain as an industrial power.

The lads work in Bean's home town of Hull, labouring like slaves to ensure that there is bread on the tables of their fellow citizens.

While the work is onerous, a combination of dedication, desperation and teamwork carries them forward through a long, hard Sunday night by the end of which much drama has taken place in an industrial workplace that prima facie seems to offer theatregoers nothing but tedium.

The heart and soul of this play are its characters, each and every one as nutty as the wholemeal loaves that they tirelessly, if begrudgingly, bake.

Everyone will have a favourite, but many seeing this production might plump for the inspired Matthew Kelly's Nellie, a lugubrious beast of burden so integrated into the factory that he could almost be mistaken for one of the ovens. Kelly's skill lies in playing a monosyllabic workhorse who nevertheless eloquently expresses his emotions.

The joker in the pack is Simon Greenall playing Cecil, one of a team of hen-pecked husbands but blessed with the ability to laugh at his own foibles. His foil is Matt Sutton as Peter, an archetypal moaner with a large family to feed.

The men are marshalled by chargehand Blakey, a sensible ex-con played by Steve Nicolson, while duplicitous shop steward Colin seems a nasty piece of work with more concern for his own interests than those of a very close-knit team.

That just leaves a former seaman with few brains but much brawn and the "student", John Wark's distinctly odd Lance sent like a lamb to the slaughter in this over-heated atmosphere.

By the late 1990s when Toast was written and presumably set, manufacturing is fading out in Britain as technology and cheaper overseas competition took over, adding an aura of pathos to a very funny evening featuring a good supply of the trademark Bean jokes.

The evening also provides an opportunity to watch men who are involved in manual labour, a topic that is rarely seen on stage, especially in London where such activities are now rarely witnessed in real life and then only carried out by willing immigrants (much to the disgust of some of our more reactionary political parties and media outlets).

Director Eleanor Rhode for Snapdragon Productions and her well-chosen cast can be proud of what is the first London revival of a play first seen at the Royal Court upstairs in its temporary home at the New Ambassadors. The authenticity seems beyond doubt, helped by James Turner's deliberately drab set and a constant stream of in jokes and the kind of lingo that can only be learned on site.

On its first appearance, Toast announced the arrival of one of the best playwrights currently operating in the UK. It still lives up to tough scrutiny a decade and a half on, easily capable of exciting, amusing and challenging viewers today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher